Workplace Spirituality in the Public Sector: a Study of US Water and Wastewater Agencies

By Michele Farmer
CWEA member with 30 years of experience in the water sector

A research study was recently published in the International Journal of Organizational Analysis (IJOA) by Emerald Publishing Limited that references the Utility of the Future’s (UOTF) challenges for water and wastewater agencies in the US.  These challenges include climate change, drought, rising costs, aging infrastructure, increased regulatory requirements, population changes, and a rapidly changing workforce (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [USEPA] et al., 2008).  The National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA), the Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF), and the Water Environment Federation (WEF) are addressing these challenges and have documented them in Effective Utility Management (EUM): A Primer for Water and Wastewater Utilities (USEPA et al., 2017) and The Water Resources Utility of the Future: A Blueprint for Action (NACWA, WERF, and WEF, 2013).  These documents include a focus on employee and leadership development to achieve sustainability, including actions like hiring and retaining motivated, participative employees and creating a collaborative organization and positive workplace environment.

The research study published in the IJOA focuses on these aspects as well.  It may surprise you that the study is titled, “Workplace Spirituality in the public sector: a study of US water and wastewater agencies.”  The participants included a panel of experts (many on the NACWA board of directors), all of whom were focused on the future of the water and wastewater industries. The participants included twelve general managers, executive directors, and commissioners in the water and wastewater industries located in nine different states.  The experts were selected because they had a high commitment to and involvement in exploring the future of the industry.  The qualifications for the experts in this study were 5 or more years of experience in the water or wastewater industry (most had over 20); a top leadership-level role in the industry reflected by a position as a general manager, assistant general manager, or equivalent title; knowledge of and commitment to the future of the industry; and commitment to multiple rounds of survey questions on workplace spirituality.

Consensus was achieved that a sense of purpose currently exists in the water and wastewater industries and will be the greatest benefit of workplace spirituality in the future. Other top themes included making a positive impact on the environment and going beyond compliance, collaborating with the community, creating a connection to peers, and encouraging organizational belonging.  A sense of purpose related to water and the environment may ensure that agencies do not just focus on minimum compliance requirements.  This is important since the UOTF listed increased regulatory requirements as an industry challenge (NACWA et al., 2013).  Public-service-motivated (PSM) employees may be intrinsically motivated to address the increasing regulatory requirements while achieving meaningful outcomes for the community.

Some panel members felt that supporting workplace spirituality may be seen as wasting tax payers’ money. This may be realistic as some public agencies are scrutinized in a stricter fashion than private entities (King, 2007).  However, the benefits of spiritually based organizations (e.g., productivity, impact on natural environment) may outweigh these concerns.

Click on link below for the journal’s abstract. To request a copy of the full article, please contact Michele Farmer at



  • Michele Farmer, Ed.D.: Doctorate in Organizational Leadership, University of La Verne, CA.    Work experience includes 30 years in the water and wastewater industry; 21 in public and 9 years in private.
  • Stuart Allen, PhD: Professor in the Department of Organizational Leadership, Robert Morris University.
  • Kathy Duncan, Ed.D.: Professor Management, Program Director, College of Business and Public Management, University of La Verne, CA.
  • Meera Alagaraja, PhD: Associate Professor, Department of Educational Leadership, Evaluation and Organizational Development, University of Louisville, KY.



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