Spirituality and Career Development

Career counseling is a dynamic process of helping clients explore how aspects of their identity may relate to their career decision making or ability to cope with work difficulties. Although researchers have examined how a wide range of personal and relational variables relate to career development, few studies have explored how spirituality, which can be a unique and often powerful component of an individual’s life, may relate to the career development process. In fact, most major theories of career counseling do not address the role of spirituality explicitly, and counselors may be overlooking a variable that may be critical to many clients’ career development. Thus, counselors are encouraged to simply ask their clients if they are spiritual and if so to explore how this component of their life may relate to their career process.

Based on research in the fields of vocational psychology and spirituality, it is proposed that a client’s spirituality may interface with a client’s career in at least three ways: as a means of support, as an influence on career-related interests and values, and as a motivator of career choice by way of a calling or vocation. However, it is likely that the uniqueness of a client’s spirituality may be matched by the uniqueness in which it relates to his or her career. By addressing these connections, counselors may have a deeper understanding of a client’s identity and also normalize the notion that spirituality may be important in career-related tasks. This entry discusses the various ways spirituality may be linked to career development and how counselors can use these relationships to provide more effective counseling.

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What Is Spirituality?

Prior to discussing the relationship between spirituality and career development, it is necessary to first understand what spirituality means. As research exploring spirituality has grown exponentially over the past 20 years, a number of definitions have emerged. Many scholars view spirituality as distinctly tied to religiousness and define spirituality as the relationship an individual has with a higher power or powers. In general, others define this term as a search for meaning in the pursuit of highest human potential. In this case, spirituality entails striving to attain or achieve a goal. Still other scholars consider spirituality a general life force that serves to guide one’s decision making and ways of living. Although definitions vary, their commonality is that spirituality, unlike religiousness, tends to be considered unique, individualized, and adaptable. It is likely that no two individuals’ spirituality would be exactly alike, that it may vary within and across cultures, that the degree it influences one’s life would greatly vary, and that many more people would claim to be spiritual than religious. Recent large-scale studies have found that 40% of people report following religious teachings in everyday life, while 80% report an interest in spirituality and 83% believe in the sacredness of life. Research has shown that regardless of the precise definition, spirituality can have a large impact on one’s life, including one’s career.

The Interface of Spirituality and Career Development

The study of spirituality in general has recently burgeoned, and in turn additional investigations have begun to explore how spirituality relates to careers and work. A series of theoretical models have been proposed that link spirituality and career development, and each model emphasizes that individuals’ spirituality should be considered in their decision-making process as it may be a critical component of their self-concept. A minimal amount of empirical research has also been completed, addressing the connections between spirituality and specific career-related variables. For example, researchers have found that college students who had greater spiritual awareness or a strong spiritual presence in their lives reported higher career decision self-efficacy and career choice commitment. For working adults, indices of spiritual well-being have been tied to greater job satisfaction. Other qualitative studies with college students and adults have found that spiritual individuals report a greater desire to serve others, that they feel more supported during career-related struggles, and that they are more likely to view their career as a calling. What this theoretical and empirical work suggests is that spirituality may be inexplicably linked to interest and value development, decision making, and coping in all stages of the career process. This notion may be especially important for career counselors who work with clients in helping them both make career decisions and cope with the world of work.

Spirituality and Career Counseling

Recent reviews of the career counseling literature have found that career counselors are both retaining many of the older “three sessions and a cloud of dust” principles and also incorporating new techniques that bridge a client’s career and relational life. Indeed, career counseling today is ideally a dynamic process through which counselors help clients explore not only their interests, skills, and values, but also their familial influence, work-family conflict, and supports and barriers. Without understanding the full scope of factors that may influence a client’s career, including spirituality, counselors may be missing information that could be critical to helping clients make decisions and cope with the world of work. The following sections focus on how a client’s spirituality and career may intertwine, with particular focus placed on spirituality as a form of support, as an influence on career interests and values, and as a choice motivator.


For college students in the process of making career decisions, and especially for working adults dealing with career-related stress, having a strong support network can be critical. Typically, counselors have been encouraged to investigate and draw on the support a client receives from friends, family, and significant others. Research has shown that individuals who feel more supported by these sources report higher levels of career decision self-efficacy, career exploration, perceptions of career and educational opportunities, and job satisfaction. These support networks typically provide safety nets to fall back on during stressful times and are sources of advice and guidance. However, the support individuals may receive through their spirituality has received minimal attention from researchers, and no studies have examined how spiritual support relates to the career development process.

So how can spiritual support be explored in career counseling? First, it is recommended that counselors ask clients if they are spiritual and then encourage them to explain what spirituality means to them. As stated previously, spirituality will likely mean something unique to each individual client and can range from a relationship with a higher power or powers to a belief in a general life force. If a client is spiritual, counselors are encouraged to explore if and to what extent he or she derives support from his or her spirituality. For some clients, this support may come from connecting with a higher being, perhaps in the form of prayer or mediation. For others, support may come from connecting with other individuals in their spiritual community who may share similar beliefs and value systems. Regardless of the exact mechanism through which support is received, spiritual support can be powerful, especially for individuals who view their spirituality as a principal component of their self-concept. Without raising the question of the extent of a client’s spirituality, counselors may be overlooking an important piece of the client’s overall support network.

Interests and Values

Two of the most important constructs in the study of career development are interests and values. In nearly all major theories of career counseling, counselors are encouraged to explore with clients their specific career interests and values and, time permitting, discuss how these developed. Through extensive research, vocational psychologists have found that these constructs do not develop in a vacuum, but rather are influenced by a variety of factors including family, personality, gender, quality of education, self-efficacy, and even spirituality. In addition, more limited research suggests that individuals who consider themselves to be spiritual report a greater desire to serve others and are more likely to be found in social jobs.

When working with clients who are spiritual, it is suggested that counselors be aware of how this important component of their life relates to their values and interests. If a client’s spirituality serves as a guiding life force, then these principles will likely affect what he or she desires out of a job or career. For example, if a central component of a client’s spiritual beliefs is to positively contribute to society or help others in some way, it would not be surprising if at an early age interests in social careers or altruistic work values developed. Many spiritual clients may have explicitly felt this influence, while for others it may be implicit, with their spiritual values so entrenched within their overall development it would be difficult to isolate them. In sum, it will be impossible to understand the full impact spirituality may have on a client’s interest and value development if this possibility is not addressed.

Career Choice

For students in the process of exploring career options and adults interested in switching jobs or careers, making an informed choice is a critical final step. In fact, in most major theories of vocational development, choice implementation is the desired outcome variable. A variety of factors contribute to the ability to make an effective choice, including, but not limited to, exploration, self-efficacy, interests, values, skills, and support. For some clients, however, their unique spirituality may serve to influence their actual career choice by way of a calling or vocation. Each of these terms has been defined in a variety of ways. For example, calling has been defined as a summons by God to a certain career, a call to serve God, and as a quest for fulfillment in work and desire to impact society. Similarly, vocation has been described as an overwhelming desire to find meaning in one’s life through work and as a call to something larger than oneself. What these terms have in common is the notion that individuals may make career decisions with less of a focus on personal factors such as skills, interests, or prestige and more of a focus on a career they feel pulled to by some external power or societal need.

Because of the scarcity of research on this topic, it is unclear what percentage of clients may feel they have a calling or vocation to a particular career or may be searching for one. It is also unclear the degree to which such a call may emanate from religious or spiritual factors or simply from a desire to serve others. Regardless, it is suggested that counselors explore with spiritual clients the extent to which they feel they have a calling or vocation and in turn what these terms mean to them. For clients who feel they have a strong calling to a certain career, it is suggested that the counselor assess the degree to which this affects their ultimate career choice. Also, clients who are especially religious or spiritual may be searching for a calling or vocation, and counselors could be particularly instrumental in this process. For clients who are seeking out a calling or vocation, it is suggested that counselors encourage them to explore their own internal interests, abilities, and values, as these may dovetail with an eventual calling or vocation and can guide clients into the areas of work that may be most satisfying for them. Though the constructs of calling and vocation are complicated and perhaps not pertinent to all career clients, it is recommended that counselors be open to exploring these variables, especially with spiritual clients.


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