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How Do You Feel? The Rise of Workplace Chaplaincy

people holding hands in support
After the central New Zealand earthquakes earlier this year, employers turned to workplace chaplaincy for support.

In July and August this year, the central North Island was rocked by a series of earthquakes, and Major David Bennett was asked to provide support in Wellington. But this time it wasn’t in his role

as the National Coordinator of Salvation Army Emergency Services. In his ‘spare’ time, David works for an inter-church mission called Vitae, which provides chaplaincy to over 200,000 employees in
the workplace.

After the earthquakes, David was asked to provide support at a major government ministry, where he spent three days talking to staff, and giving them an opportunity to share their experiences.

At an energy company’s national office, staff were literally shaken as plaster fell from the walls, and Vitae was asked to provide support for all their staff. David met with groups of 20 and asked one simple question: ‘How do you feel?’ Answers ranged from ‘panic stricken’ to ‘it was just getting interesting and it stopped’. ‘I was able to reassure people that however they felt or reacted was okay and normal, and it just gave them a chance to talk about their worries,’ says David.

Chaplains, known as ‘staff support specialists’, aren’t counsellors or social workers, explains David, but they are a ‘safety valve’ that allows people to talk through issues before they get too big. Although specially trained and often come from pastoral backgrounds, these ‘support specialists’ refer employees for counselling or professional assistance when needed.

This inter-church ministry began in the 1960s, and now operates separately as Vitae in the North Island and Workplace Support in the South. Both offer ongoing programmes to promote employee wellness, including one-to-one chaplaincy, as well as training in life skills and workplace issues. Relationship challenges are the most common issue for employees, making up 20 per cent of referrals. Anxiety, depression and workplace restructuring are other key issues.

Carole Coventry is the staff support specialist at a national supermarket chain, where she spends four hours each week and is available to more than 300 staff. ‘I once had a phone call from a distraught staff member whose grandmother had died. I was the first person she thought to call,’ says Carole. ‘It’s wonderful to be able to care and show an interest in others.’

And it’s not just staff, but also employers that receive the benefits of workplace chaplaincy. Workplace Support helped company Southern Clams create a stronger working environment by providing ‘a very strong support and feedback avenue on how we deal with new demanding situations … that normally you would want to put aside,’ says operations manager David Redshaw. The service helped the company deal constructively with issues and develop ideas to improve their work environment.

Both Vitae and Workplace Support provide assistance with trauma after a critical incident. ‘Where

there has been a workplace incident in which people are traumatised, specially trained staff are

available around the clock to respond immediately,’ says Lindsay Guild, Workplace Support chairperson.

In Wellington, David has been a listening ear for workers experiencing severe trauma, including an accident in which a young woman got her arm caught in a machine, and a workplace where a colleague had been murdered in a domestic dispute.

One incident that has stayed with him was visiting the workplace of a man whose son had been killed at a racetrack. ‘I said to the man’s colleagues, “Change shoes for a moment. How would you feel if you were him?” It really opened up the conversation about how they would want others to react,’ says David. ‘I always feel fear when I go in to situation like this, but I’ve found that the Holy Spirit always goes with me.’

‘Getting alongside people to offer hope and support has always been the core mission of the church,’ says Vitae chairperson Murray Edridge. ‘Vitae [and Workplace Support] provides an opportunity for church involvement in workplace mission.’

By Ingrid Barratt

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