Improving the psychosocial work environment for state church employees

The unique challenges of working for the church in Denmark have been examined in a new report. More than 4,800 people took part in the study which looked specifically at the church’s psychological work environment. It makes recommendations about how to resolve three key issues that the church should address:a poorly defined management structure, the lack of formal conflict resolution, and poor support for staff who face unusually high levels of work-related emotional strain.

Background

The Danish state church is unique as a workplace. For many employees, the decision to take a job working for the church is based purely on faith and values. The primary task of the church – to preach Christianity – is also one of faith and values.

The Danish state church is also unique in its organisation. It is made up of a number of small work units, the majority comprising fewer than 10 employees.

There are two separate but coexisting management structures. However, managers are not present at the place of work on a daily basis. The combination of factors in the organisation, according to the report, creates a unique establishment and unusual working conditions for the employees.

Analysis of the structure

The factors affecting the church and its workplace were analysed in a report, A study of the psychological work environment in the church in 2012 (in Danish, 1.93 MB PDF), commissioned by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Ecclesiastical Affairs and published in June 2013. The report follows on from a 2002 study, The psychosocial work environment of the national church (in Danish, 527 KB PDF).

The new report describes the current psychological working conditions for all employees of the state church. It identifies the main challenges for people working in the church and provides recommendations for improvement. The objective of the report is to help focus future work environment initiatives for what is seen as a unique workplace.

The study was a mixed-method design using both quantitative and qualitative input. The quantitative part comprises a questionnaire distributed to all the employees of the state church. There were 4,803 participants, a response rate of 33%. The qualitative part comprises four focus group interviews with employees, 10 interviews with management, four case studies and two seminars.

Key findings

The main quantitative findings from the report indicate that the psychological work environment of the state church is neither worse nor better than that of other Danish workplaces. Job satisfaction among employees is equal to the national average. Job satisfaction has increased in comparison with the results of the 2002 study.

Employees of the state church feel they have a higher degree of influence on their work than the national average, but also a higher degree of harassment and emotional exhaustion. The level of stress experienced by employees of the church is equal to that of the average Danish employee.

Overall, the work environment of the Danish state church is, in these quantitative terms, similar to many other work places and similar to the national average.

However, despite these similarities, the report also shows that the church is a workplace unlike most others in the challenges posed by its psychological work environment.

Three substantial issues are identified in the current psychological working conditions, all arising out of the unique nature of the Danish state church. They are its management structure, the lack of any formal conflict resolution structure, and the emotional strain the work places on employees.

Unusual management structure

Part of what makes the Danish state church such a unique workplace is the atypical organisational structure. This is characterised firstly by a complex dual management structure with collaboration between volunteers and paid employees, and second by the high number of small separate work units where more than half the employees have over 10 years of service. Together, these two characteristics create unusual conditions for management seeking to create a good psychological work environment.

The church’s management is not professional, visible or accessible on a daily basis to employees. A shared definition of the role of manager is lacking.

It is generally accepted in business that employees should know who their day-to-day line manager is. The employee should be able to turn to the manager for supervision or for resolution of disagreement or conflict.

Currently in the church there is a ‘solo’ culture with little evidence of cooperation and coordination. Better management, the study suggests, could help increase cooperation. More frequent meetings should be held to create a forum for the exchange of ideas and opinions.

The resolution of disagreements and conflict is seen as a particular problem in workplaces where no manager is involved in day-to-day organisation.

Conflict resolution system

The second issue is the lack of a conflict resolution system. Misunderstandings and small disagreements are not resolved, neither colleague-to-colleague nor by management. Problems are allowed to grow into personal conflicts that compromise the psychological work environment.

Of the survey respondents, 15% reported that they had experienced harassment at work. This constitutes a major challenge for the church as a workplace. It emphasises the need for a forum for exchanging opinions, airing grievances and starting discussions. It also highlights the need, says the report, for a more formalised structure for conflict resolution.

This issue is in part a consequence of what the report describes as ‘compromised and invisible management’. The study says a more accessible and involved management could take responsibility for creating a forum for conflict resolution and eradicating workplace harassment. The report suggests this challenge is related to the need for better, more transparent management from the top, and better communication and collaboration between colleagues and work units.

Work-related emotional strain

The report says many roles within the church involve a great deal of personal commitment and impose great emotional demands on employees. As church work is often a very personal choice, the line between profession and person can become blurred or even be erased. This increases an employee’s personal involvement in the job and can increase the impact of negative or emotionally difficult experiences at work. It means the church faces a major challenge, says the study, to ensure that employees are supported by a good psychological work environment.

A lack of management supervision and coaching means many employees feel they are left to cope alone without the tools to deal with the emotional demands of the job.

The emotional strain on employees can also be expected to increase with the level of any conflict in the workplace, especially where there is harassment or long term personal conflict. The report says steps need to be taken to resolve these issues and help employees cope with the emotional strain of the job.

Developing a culture of dialogue

The report includes a number of recommendations for tackling these three issues and improving the psychological work environment of the Danish state church.

The key word used in all the report’s recommendations is ‘communication’.

Despite great diversity, all work units in the church would benefit from the development of an appreciative dialogue-based culture with more explicit and formalised structures for conversation and cooperation.

Specific recommendations in the report include holding regular scheduled meetings, establishing a forum for ‘discussion and disagreement’, and ‘transverse cooperation’ and ‘collegial coaching’ – the creation of professional collaborative environments between work units. The aim would be to change the existing ‘solo’ culture, minimise conflict and lessen the emotional strain on the employees.

The report also recommends the establishment of a clearer management structure so that all employees know who their day-to-day leader is.

A first step towards achieving better leadership within the Danish state church, suggests the report, would be to inform the volunteer parish councils about its management role and the tasks required of a manager. This should be followed by the creation of a shared personnel policy that sets out agreed values for the workplace.

The Danish state church is characterised by a high level of social capital which could be used strategically to make this process work well and contribute to an overall improvement of the psychological work environment.

Anna Paarup Kylling and Gry Grundtvig, Oxford Research A/S

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