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Spiritual fitness and resilience: A review of relevant constructs, measures and links to well-being

US literature review, 2013

Deloitte, Diversity, Work stressDo an employee’s spiritual beliefs influence how they respond to and recover from stressful situations and changing demands? What is spiritual fitness? And how can organisations enhance spiritual fitness for their workforce?

By way of background, at a time of heightened US military conflict, the U.S. Air Force commissioned RAND (a not-for profit institution) to develop a series of research reports to understand how it can promote resilience for its workforce and their family members through either preventative or remedial activities. These reports spanned 8 domains, including medical care, nutrition, behaviour, and spiritual. This note covers the findings in the report focussed on spiritual fitness and resilience.

As a starting point, RAND adopted the Air Force’s definition of resilience, namely “the ability to withstand, recover and/or grow in the face of stressors and changing demands”. In this report, researchers Douglas Yeung and Margret T. Martin (with the Rand Corporation) explored how the adherence to beliefs and values required for succeeding in missions, or in other words, “spiritual fitness”, may be beneficial for improving resilience. Their research found that the four key constructs of spiritual fitness – spiritual worldview, personal religious or spiritual practices and rituals, support from spiritual and religious communities and spiritual coping – have linkages for enhanced resilience and well-being outcomes. 

Notably, the researchers adopted an expanded view of spiritual fitness that does “not require any degree of religiosity or belief in the supernatural”, meaning that atheists who adhere to humanist views about the meaning of life, for example, could still be “spiritually fit”.    


The aim of this research was to understand whether and how spiritual fitness may improve the U.S. Air Force readiness and performance.   


The research comprised a literature review, the parameters for which prioritised research from the past decade, research with adults in the United States and larger bodies of research over smaller one-time studies. Exceptions included any historical, landmark studies that are the crux to current research, and the inclusion of children when relevant in discussions about family as social support.


Yeung and Martin found, overall, that resilience and well-being outcomes can be improved by responding to people’s spiritual needs. In particular the research found that “spiritual fitness may influence resilience and well-being outcomes either directly, or indirectly by buffering stress”. These well-being benefits were identified by 81 of 102 studies reviewed in 2000, and a further 175 of 224 studies reviewed in 2012, is that spiritual fitness relates to well-being, suggesting that a focus on spiritual fitness is a pathway to improve resilience. 

In relationship to the four spiritual fitness constructs, their findings discussed:

  1. Spiritual worldview (i.e. a belief in transcendent meaning and purpose): Research revealed that a spiritual worldview is associated with psychological health. Further, a spiritual world view helps people to find meaning and purpose in, and therefore cope with, pain. Interestingly, the report identified that the mission and values of the military (emphasising courage, sacrifice and brotherhood) can act to provide a spiritual worldview 

  2. Personal religious or spiritual practices and rituals: The researchers found it challenging to measure the impact of practices on resilience and well-being outcomes, as few metrics included questions about spiritual practices. Nevertheless, research revealed practices, such as meditation and prayer, provided therapeutic support and reduced anxiety

  3. Support from a spiritual community: Similar to spiritual practices, few metrics included questions about spiritual support and focussed on a single God, rather than a range of spiritual beliefs. Nevertheless, research revealed a positive relationship between attending religious services and mental well-being.  Spiritual communities also provided resources for dealing with stressful circumstances

  4. Spiritual coping (i.e. beliefs as a source of coping and comfort): Research was mixed in relation to the impact of beliefs on well-being, the difference relating to whether the belief created a “religious struggle” for the person, or provided “religious coping”. In relation to resilience, studies suggest that spiritual coping may help buffer against an “uncertain world”.


Clearly the report’s primary implication is that attention to spiritual fitness can assist resilience and well-being.  This insight is of particular value to the Armed Forces given that individual (and family) stress is part of a daily lived experience and generated in multiple ways, e.g. “uncertainty about deployment time lines; culture shock in theatre;  fear of confrontation with death or physical injury; environmental  challenges… austere living conditions” and separation, and resilience is critical.

For organisations outside of the Armed Forces, how does resilience or an improved well-being for their workforce assist their business goals? Are employees that are adept and comfortable with managing stress more productive than those who have a harder time coping with the negative effects of stress? Employee’ spiritual fitness, such as how they view meaning in their lives may directly or indirectly impact their performance on the job. As generations exit and enter the workforce, spiritual fitness may become more relevant for workers over time. The consideration of spiritual fitness may be an opportunity to examine and understand what motivates or demotivates employees in different circumstances. 

The challenge is how to respond to these findings in ways that are culturally nuanced and also recognises those with spiritual worldviews but are not aligned with a “recognised” religion. The second challenge is how to create interventions that incorporate the individual as well as the family and broader community, i.e. how can strategies be multi-faceted. Whilst the report is primarily directed at making the case for focussing on spiritual fitness as a way to support resilience and well-being, Yeung and Martin do make a few recommendations about interventions, taking into account these challenges.

The authors highlight, for example, the value in implementing programs that do not specifically focus on any of the above mentioned spiritual constructs but promote mindfulness and meditation techniques, as these have been shown to increase spiritual well-being. Further, the process of emotional disclosure or verbally expressing traumatic thoughts and feelings can help “meaning making” and have profound effects on psychological as well as physical health. These three recommendations (mindfulness, meditation and emotional disclosure) are focussed on individual interventions.

Taking a more military lens, the authors suggest that individual outcomes can be further enhanced by building leadership capability to create “altruistic norms” at the unit level; ensuring that military chaplains do not provide counselling on mental health issues for which they are unprepared (i.e. manage to role boundaries); and that military communities should undertake training in “moral knowledge and ethics. Each of these three supplementary recommendations is supported by data demonstrating the positive impact of such interventions.

To read the full article, see Yeung, Douglas and Margret T. Martin. Spiritual Fitness and Resilience: A Review of Relevant Constructs, Measures, and Links to Well-Being. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2013. Also available in print form.

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