Priests and pastors run a greater risk of becoming ill because of stress and mental fatigue than people working in almost any other jobs in Sweden, according to figures recently released by Sweden's Social Insurance Agency.
Church leaders commenting on the sickness surge on Friday that the exact causes of the recent surge in priests asking for time off was unclear, but suggested the profession's unique nature fostered an “on-call” culture that is rare in many other positions in Sweden.
“Priests will work 40 hours a week like anyone else, but in reality things are different. As a priest, you are expected to never be idle,” Vibeke Hammarström, Director of Sweden's union for people employed by the Swedish church, Kyrkans akademikerförbund, told the TT news agency.
“There's a culture that requires you as a priest to be reachable even when you're off. As a priest, you do not say to a person who is in great need to talk, 'sorry but I'm off to go and play golf,” the spokesperson added.
Separate studies suggest priests work more hours than both school leaders and senior figures in Sweden's tech industry, while other research points to more general evidence that those in so-called “contact occupations” that require interaction with members of the public are at a higher risk of needing sick leave than others, TT reported.
“If there is anything that the priesthood is, it's a contact profession,” said Hammarström.
While increasing numbers of Swedish employees answer emails or phone calls out-of-hours, the experiences of priests contrasts with a strong culture of “work-life balance” in most of the nation's industries, with firms offering flexible schedules for staff and more annual leave than any other EU nation.
Carina Nilsson, a vicar in the parish of Lidingö just outside Stockholm, told TT that she was feeling the weight of her profession after 22 years of long and erratic hours.
“In my congregation every priest is responsible for two funerals and three weddings or baptisms every week, events that are some of life's greatest. This is a rich experience, but it is not possible to be available all the time,” she said.
As well as being in constant touch with parishioners, Nilsson noted that priests and other clergy need to be in contact with funeral homes, non profit organisations and administrative offices linked to the church. These interactions regularly take place midweek, she said, when priests should be given some time off after working over the weekend.
But Nilsson suggested to TT that she was trying to do more to help her and her staff separate their work and home lives.
“It is important for me as a manager to have clear procedures for when one is off and and when one is working. One measure we have taken is to ensure that people have separate uses for their private mobile phone and work cell phone,” she said.
The reports of stress in one of Sweden's oldest professions comes despite declining church attendance in the Nordic country, which is one of the most secular in the world.
And it seems that many priests are also having a tough time in their personal lives too, with figures released last year suggesting that growing numbers of priests are getting divorced.