7 Virtues for the Workplace

“Don’t wait until you are old to start becoming a saint ... Begin right now, in earnest, cheerfully and joyfully, by fulfilling the duties of your work and of your everyday life” (St. Josemaria Escriva).

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At the end of yet another exhausting work day, I laid my head down on my desk. I was defeated. It was my second year of teaching, and I found myself completely overwhelmed by competing demands. Students, parents, my department chair, the administration — all of them seemed to have different expectations about how I was supposed to be doing my job.The only thing these expectations had in common? I was failing to meet all of them.

After letting the weight of this perceived failure crush me for a moment, I sighed and looked up. There, at the front of my classroom, was the crucifix. As I looked at it, peace settled over me. Jesus was perfect, I thought, and look what they did to him.

I’ve struggled with perfectionism for many years. For most of that time, perfectionism brought me success. I was an excellent student and had a great resume. My perfectionism drove me to achieve, and my achievements generated greater accomplishments. Now that I had entered the workforce, though, things weren’t quite so simple. I found myself in a position where competing standards made it impossible to satisfy everyone.

Perfectionism had been my way of life through adolescence. Now, Jesus was inviting me to something different. He was asking me to trade the worldly standard of perfection for a posture of humility.

It is hard to surrender to Jesus, especially when that surrender means laying down our own pride. But the beautiful paradox is that the more we surrender to Jesus, the freer we become. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened,” Jesus invites us (Matthew 11:28-30). “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me … for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Whatever our profession, Jesus invites us to learn from him.

When we practice virtue at work, our work becomes a path to holiness. Wherever we find ourselves, we strive to bloom where we are planted. What we do for the world is important, but perhaps more important is how we do it.

Being mindful of these seven virtues can help to see our work through the lens of eternity and each of our actions as something that cultivates the inner garden of our souls.

1. HUMILITY

When faced with our own mistakes, it is so easy to offer explanations, make excuses, or even deny what reflects poorly on us. Humility frees us to reflect honestly on our work and hold ourselves accountable for poor performance. It is the foundational virtue for being a person of integrity.

When we own up to our mistakes and try to remedy them, we earn the respect of our co-workers. Even when another person shares the blame, or extenuating circumstances might explain away our fault in the matter, we can grow in humility by honestly examining and admitting our part.

Humility is difficult and painful, but it can also be freeing. One way to cultivate humility is to pray the Litany of Humility. With its petitions to God to deliver us from things like attachments to the ways others view us, this prayer helps us mindfully walk a path of greater freedom and holiness.

2. OBEDIENCE

Dealing with change is challenging, but it can be especially difficult to deal with change gracefully at work. Whether it’s a new boss, the sale of our company, or a shift in initiatives, our instinct for self-preservation tells us to stick to what we know and to resist everything else.

So long as the changes are not matters of real injustice, it helps to view our position as employees as an opportunity to practice obedience. Rather than stir up unrest, we can cultivate attitudes of acceptance and willingness to work within our new paradigm. Instead of lamenting what these changes will cost us, we can resolve to be a force of positivity in the workplace, moving things forward.

In the end, obedience is also a practice of humility. Whatever the change is that we experience, practicing obedience helps us to humbly trust the vision of our leaders. It reminds us that in whatever situation we face, it is not ourselves but Jesus who is Lord of all.

3. PRESENCE

We were made for relationship. While technological advances help us streamline processes and increase productivity, we lose something when we spend our days facing screens instead of one another. Workdays can slip by with few moments in which we really engage our co-workers or customers.

Simply making the effort to greet each another face to face can go a long way in humanizing the workplace. Giving others our full attention is a way of honoring the dignity of the person in front of us.

Particularly when we face conflict, it is essential that we look one another in the eyes as we seek a resolution. We all know how easily miscommunication can damage relationships. Resolving conflicts face to face takes courage but ultimately leads to better outcomes than emailing back and forth. When faced with honesty and respect, conflicts actually have the potential to strengthen our relationships as we seek to more deeply understand one another.

4. JOY

Every interaction we have is an opportunity to bring joy into the lives of others. Malice, gossip, and negativity infect the workplace. As Christians, we are called not to spread that darkness or even shy away from it but to bring light into it.

Sound impossible? Try praying the prayer of St. Francis before work and at the end of your day. Being joyful doesn’t mean adopting a false face of cheerfulness. It means refraining from spreading anything poisons and, instead, focusing on making the world a better place for those whom we encounter.

5. MERCY

One gift of the workplace is its many opportunities to practice mercy. Whether through minor irritations or serious errors, others will fail us. That is a reality of working on a team. When facing others’ failings, we have the opportunity to patiently bear wrongs. We ought always to presume the good rather than assume the worst.

Without engaging others, we cannot know what is in their hearts or what their motivations are. Seeking to understand others’ intentions helps to preserve relationships that will exist long after momentary conflicts have passed. Practicing mercy also prepares us to more gracefully face our own inevitable failings.

6. HOSPITALITY

We ought always strive to be a place of welcome for others. At work, this means cultivating an atmosphere of home, which can take the form of welcoming new employees and helping them to adjust and navigate their new environment. It can also mean making the work environment more hospitable for our co-workers. Little touches like decorating the office or celebrating milestones like work anniversaries, birthdays, and baby showers are not superfluous. Rather, they are ways to honor the human community where you work together. Creating a warm and welcoming work environment helps people to feel a sense of belonging and investment.

7. GENEROSITY

When we feel stretched thin, many of us fall into the habit of coveting our time. Viewing time as scarce, we withdraw from others to focus on our own tasks. Focus is good, but this behavior becomes problematic when we begin to resent others who need our help or who ask more of us. We find ourselves plagued by thoughts like, “That’s not my job” or, “Why can’t she do this herself?”

We can counteract these thoughts by choosing to offer more than is asked of us. Like the widow in the Gospel (Luke 21:1-4) who gave her last two coins, we can choose to give not only out of our surplus but when it really costs us. This is the call of the Gospel when Jesus asks us to walk an extra mile with the people who need us (Matthew 5:41). It is not about striving for our own glory but, rather, emptying ourselves out in service of others.

Samantha Stephenson has master’s degrees in theology and bioethics. After eight years in the field of education, she shifted her career path to be more available to her husband and their two children. Currently, she works from home as an online course facilitator for the McGrath Institute for Church Life at Notre Dame and a freelance writer on themes of prayer, vocation and the Church. You can find her at SpiritualityoftheOrdinary.com.