Workplace chaplaincy: providing extra support for staff

Workplace chaplains can work alongside occupational health practitioners to support staff in stressful times, says Chris Savage, team leader at Chaplaincy to People at Work.

In the 1990s, as industrial chaplain for Basingstoke and North Hampshire, my job was visiting companies as an Anglican priest offering an independent pastoral and advocacy role. One day I received a call from the occupational health nurse from one of the companies I visited, a well-known pharmaceutical firm. The HR function was panicking because an employee had called to say that his mother was dying and HR did not know what to do.

My OH colleague and I decided to work as a team. She administered the necessary OH support and I provided assistance by visiting him regularly, offering a listening ear and helping him to prepare for what would be a momentous event in his life: the death of his mother.

A year or so later, we worked together again with this employee. This time we helped him to prepare for his own death. I also visited his work colleagues on site and talked with them about how they felt having to face up to the death of a respected friend and colleague. I will always be very grateful that the company took this very seriously and ensured a good turnout at the funeral.

So, why should a chaplain be so involved in the life of a company? What benefits are there for employers and employees from the regular visiting and ministry of a chaplain from a faith community?

Business background

I am team leader at Chaplaincy to People at Work (CPW), a registered charity based in Cambridgeshire. Our “Caring for the whole person in the workplace” leaflet explains the ethos of the organisation.

So what does a workplace chaplain do? Chaplains enter workplaces by agreement with management and trade unions (where they exist). Their presence is seen as supplementary to existing support services such as HR and OH.

Workplace chaplaincies provide a free service, although some have commercial contracts agreed with companies and public sector organisations. The latter are becoming fewer due to the current economic restraints.

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quotemarksThe chaplain quite often becomes a bridge builder, facilitating relationships between different sections of the organisation.”

For example, Cambridgeshire Constabulary has had to significantly reduce funding allocated to a coordinating chaplain who, in 15 months, has built a team of 16 volunteer chaplains.

A chaplain will typically visit weekly or monthly. CPW chaplains usually have an agreed contract between the company and the chaplaincy. I visit public and private sector organisations. The link contact is usually a manager in HR or another relevant department.

Meeting and greeting involves wandering around with intent, not to disrupt work but to catch the eye, whether it is just to say “hello” or to spare a couple of minutes to talk to people. In an era where communication seems to be more through electronic means than face-to-face, contact is vitally important. You cannot beat the spoken word.

There will always be those who would, for many reasons, rather avoid me. Their privacy is always respected. The chaplain provides an independent, listening ear, giving time to people and administering impartial advice when appropriate, and this builds confidence in the chaplain’s role.

The chaplain quite often becomes a bridge builder, facilitating relationships between different sections of the organisation. His or her role leads to effective networking and involvement in local commercial organisations.

Changing attitudes

Workplace chaplaincy is more challenging today than when I was at my post in Basingstoke 20 years ago. Back then, there seemed to be more acceptance of Christian ministry in the workplace because society had not become as secularised as it is today.

When I am negotiating new chaplaincies, two points are often expressed by managers or owners of companies.

The first point relates to the question: “If I let you in here, what about other religions that might feel offended?” It is argued that diversity is very important, which it is, of course, and that is something that workplace chaplaincies honour rather than flout.

There are at least two workplace chaplaincies in the UK, and CPW is a member of the East of England Faiths Council. Furthermore, in common with other chaplaincies, our trustees approved a multi-faith policy in 2008, which is detailed in full in the adjacent panel.

CPW works collaboratively with other faith groups and we currently have two associate chaplains who are Muslims.

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quotemarksWorkplace chaplains offer support to everyone. They supplement existing HR and welfare services.”

The second point often raised by managers is that there are not many Christians in the workforce and the majority of staff may be embarrassed or put off by the presence of a chaplain. People have even said that atheists will be offended.

Despite the Christian heritage of the UK and the fact that England and Scotland have established churches, religion is very much seen by many companies and organisations as a no-go area.

Providing support for the modern workplace

Torry (2010) makes the point that “there is no such thing as secularisation. There are secularisations in the plural”.

He lists eight of these as: the secularisation of ideas; cultural secularisation; desacralisation; practical secularisation; state secularisation; institutional secularisation; religious secularisation; and secularisation of individual beliefs.

In our secularised and perhaps post-Christian society, modern life takes its toll and may include health worries, relationship difficulties and family demands. Workplace chaplains offer support to everyone. They supplement existing HR and welfare services.

The effect of having an independent listening ear reduces stress, increases motivation and engenders wellbeing. This, in turn, boosts staff morale, enhances working relationships and, ultimately, increases productivity.

Many of the problems that individuals face at work are linked to their own inability to be assertive in their relationships with work colleagues, bosses and even their subordinates.

This can reflect in allowing their workload to get too heavy, having to work long hours, frequent travel and a range of inappropriate activities that can be individually and organisationally counter-productive (Cooper et al, 1988).

A lot of stress at work for individuals is beyond their control. I visit staff in three public sector organisations. Funding crises and shortage of resources were endemic long before the economic crisis that began in 2007.

It is very much worse now. Staff are being relocated in an effort to save money; a new building is running at half capacity; and yet another restructuring programme is up for consultation.

Staff are demoralised and there is no shortage of people willing to confide their anger and frustration at what they are facing. A record number of staff are applying for severance pay.

There are long periods of non-communication that leave workers feeling undervalued and unwanted. The A4-size posters that are publicly displayed around the workplace speak of proud achievements but say nothing about how staff are valued in the organisation.

How does the chaplain respond to all this? Usually, by frequent visits, which shows staff that the chaplain cares and is involved. One-to-one encounters with the chaplain offering a listening ear give those who feel like victims a sense of hope.

The chaplain will want to help staff, either individually or in a group, to try to make sense of what is happening. He or she will also strive to help people face up to and manage their futures.

Missing link

But chaplaincy is not solely about crisis management. We do, from time to time, have to play an advocacy role. I was once chaplain to a large engineering company where management seemed to be led by bullying and intimidation.

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quotemarksChaplaincy is not solely about crisis management. We do, from time to time, have to play an advocacy role.”

One morning I reported to HR only to be greeted angrily with the news that the HR department was being decimated.

There were other redundancies, and there seemed to have been no consultation with staff, who angrily turned on me. It felt like a scene from The Bible. “You’re the vicar, why don’t you do something?” they said.

Eventually, I secured a meeting with the managing director and two other directors. I explained what I had encountered and my concern for where the company seemed to be headed.

I also told them that staff were demoralised. I got a patronising response, which convinced me that senior directors were out of touch, and dangerously so. I was proved right. The directors were soon removed and a new managing director was appointed. I will never forget him thanking me for standing by the staff.

I always see workplace chaplaincy as being like the proverbial Heineken beer: it gets to the parts others can’t reach.

This ministry is independent of any work structures and provides a confidential listening service that not only gives hope, but helps those involved to adapt to and manage change in their lives.

I must not forget to mention e-chaplaincy, which is conducted online and caters for those who prefer technology to human encounter as a way of communicating in particular circumstances.

I will be very pleased to hear from, and discuss further details with, any readers who want to know more on the subject.

Chris Savage is team leader at Chaplaincy to People at Work.


Bridgebuilders: Workplace Chaplaincy – A History. Torry M, Norwich, Canterbury Press 2010.

The Church Beyond the Church; Sheffield Industrial Mission 1944-1994. Bagshaw P, Sheffield, 1994.

Church and People in an Industrial City, ER Wickham, London, Lutterworth Press 1957.

Living with Stress. Cooper CL, Cooper RD, Eaker LH, London, Penguin 1988.

Chaplaincy to People at Work policy on multi-faith issues

Employees of organisations in which chaplains work may belong to many different faiths, or even to none.

Chaplaincy to People at Work (CPW) is a Christian organisation and its chaplains are therefore committed Christians. However, CPW is part of the East of England Faiths Council and works collaboratively with all faith groups.

If a chaplain’s work is to be effective, they must be sensitive to the religious beliefs of all employees that they come into contact with.

These employees share the same concerns and often the same values, whatever their faith, and chaplains can be effective in helping all who seek support.

Experience in setting up new chaplaincies shows that many organisations are sensitive to these issues and sometimes they require assurance that such issues have been addressed by CPW.

Through the service that chaplains provide to organisations, CPW is able to:

  • honour the heritage and mission as a Christian organisation and respect other faiths, beliefs and the integrity of individuals;
  • understand the duties of employers with regard to legal requirements relating to discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief;
  • recognise that many principles and values adopted by Christians are shared by people of other faiths and those with no beliefs;
  • allow people to be true to themselves;
  • recognise that people consist of body, mind and spirit, and endeavour to help each individual to attain their full potential;
  • endeavour to help employees of organisations to find time to reflect on what gives meaning and purpose to their life and work; and
  • provide confidential support regardless of faith and status.

A brief history of workplace chaplaincy

Workplace chaplaincy, or Industrial Mission as it was originally known, began in the churches in the immediate post-war years. Its origins can be seen in the worker-priest movement in France and The Mission to Seafarers in the UK.

During the Second World War, Germany conscripted French workers. A number of priests travelled as workers so that they could continue to minister to workers needs.

After the war, these priests were active in trade unions and thus became radicalised to the extent that there was a large chasm between them, the Vatican and the life of local churches (Torry M, 2010).

Towards the end of the Second World War, Leslie Hunter, the Anglican Bishop of Sheffield, decided to take an initiative that led to the foundation of Industrial Mission in England. He felt that the many workers in the large steel factories in his diocese were “mass produced and mass producing”. He also felt that the churches were divorced from the lives of working people and tended to live isolated in their own bubble. Therefore, he sent one of his priests, Ted Wickham, to make contacts with workers in the large factories. Wickham managed to engage workers in meaningful dialogue on issues in the workplace as well as showing that God and the church, far from being aloof, actually cared for those at work. His influence was so great that it is recorded that workers not only had their union dues deducted from their wages but also a contribution to the church’s work in industry (Bagshaw P, 1994). Wickham was eventually appointed Bishop of Middleton and wrote the seminal book Church and People in an Industrial Society (Wickham ER, 1957).

At the same time, ministry to workers was developing in Southwark, with work pioneered by Cuthbert Bardsley, later Bishop of Coventry, and Colin Cuttell.

Industrial Mission spread rapidly and ecumenical teams of chaplains emerged, particularly in cities such as Sheffield, Manchester, Newcastle upon Tyne, Birmingham and Coventry, as well as in towns such as Selby, where densely populated industries centring on coal mines and heavy manufacturing of steel and cars existed.

The decline of the manufacturing industry, which began in the 1980s, eventually led to a change of name for Industrial Mission teams. Workplace chaplaincy now embraces heavy and light manufacturing industries and, more typically, service industries such as retail, finance and technology. There are also chaplains in police forces, fire and rescue services and local authorities.

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