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Unite finds faith workers are stressed and overworked

27 October 2023

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THE majority of faith workers regularly work more hours than they are contracted to, and many are struggling to make ends meet, a well-being survey by the union Unite has found.

Unite surveyed 932 faith workers in the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church, other Christian denominations, and other religions in the UK, of whom 673 identified themselves as Church of England. It found that 23 per cent of clergy struggled to pay bills, seven per cent missed meals, and 21 per cent relied on friends and family for support.

Current conditions are leading many to want to leave their ministries, the union says. It is calling on all religious groups to “take a long hard look” at whether they are providing the right conditions and support for their workers.

“By the time you calculate hours worked, most of these faith workers are in reality receiving less than minimum wage,” the union’s regional co-ordinating officer, Sarah Cook, says. “Unite is now entirely focused on promoting and defending its members’ jobs, pay, and conditions. That commitment applies equally to our faith workers.”

Asked about their personal circumstances over the past 12 months, 62 per cent (417 respondents) described themselves as worse off, 200 as the same, and 56 as better off.

Just under one quarter had struggled to pay utility bills; 138 respondents had relied on support from family and friends; 137 had cancelled holiday plans; 70 had struggled to afford transport costs; 56 had struggled to afford basics such as food and clothing; 47 had skipped meals; 44 had taken out a new loan; and ten had used foodbanks.

Of the 665 responses to the question “Have you applied for support from the Clergy Support Trust in the last 12 months?”, 189 had done so, and 476 had not.

Three-quarters of respondents were regularly working more than their agreed hours or work pattern. Asked how many hours a week they usually worked in practice, 255 were working between 50 and 65 hours, and 235 between 35 and 50. Seventy-one were working more than 65 hours.

While ill health or stress topped the list of reasons that 216 respondents were considering leaving their job in the next couple of years, bullying and harassment were named as the issues that most had experienced at work.

Sleeplessness was the most named symptom affecting their work, followed by continual tiredness and anxiety. Asked “Do you ever suffer from stress at work?”, 90 per cent said yes. The chief cause identified was lack of support, followed by work/life balance.

Faith organisations could improve pay, pensions, and housing, and consult better on change, respondents suggested. In answer to the final question, “Are you stressed or anxious about any of the following in relation to when you retire?”, 33 per cent named income and finances; 23 per cent, housing affordability; 15 per cent, housing location; and 15 per cent, pressure to continue in active ministry.

Ms Cook concluded: “In a society that relies upon faith workers to pick up the slack, the religious bodies they serve so devotedly need to set an example and dramatically improve their conditions.”

Unite has previously described Church of England clergy as “among the working poor”.

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