“Human beings still have problems in life—we get cancer, we get divorced, we have workplace accidents,” Miller said. “In different situations we seek and heal through different kinds of help and services. Sometimes it’s a medical service, sometimes it’s just a friend to cry on their shoulder, and other times there’s a spiritual dimension to it.”
For many people, particularly in the United States, religious leaders and institutions often offer that support structure. For those who don’t have that kind of independent community, work is a logical place to look for help—and some employers seem to be recognizing that. As Miller put it in a 2013 paper, “Due to people not having sufficient social support networks, whether at church, in the family, or community, it has become necessary for the work organization to become the new community.”
It’s hard to know just how many workplace chaplains are employed around the U.S., partly because many of them work at privately owned, small- or medium-sized businesses. It’s not just an American phenomenon—Miller has studied initiatives in the U.K., Germany, Switzerland, Australia, and Hong Kong. Many programs are contracted out through non-profit organizations such as Marketplace Ministries, a global, Protestant non-profit that claims to be the largest provider of workplace-chaplaincy services in the U.S. According to its CEO, Doug Fagerstrom, the organization added more new companies to its roster in 2015 than ever before.
Tyson Foods is a rare example of a publicly traded company that runs its own in-house chaplaincy program, which was started 16 years ago and was recently featured in a documentary on PBS. According to Miller’s research, Tyson Foods “is the largest known private-sector corporate-chaplaincy program,” with more than 115 chaplains based in different factories around the country. Company-wide, this works out to roughly one chaplain on staff for every 1,000 Tyson employees.
“When I first started here, John Tyson said something to me,” said Mike Tarvin, a former military chaplain who directs chaplaincy services at the company. “He wanted people to be able to bring their whole selves to work. We provide our team members at Tyson Foods an opportunity to bring that whole self, including that spiritual side, and not [feel] like that they have to check that at the door.”
Being able to bring one’s “whole self” to work, though, often depends on whether it’s convenient for employers to accommodate that “whole self.” Especially in factory settings, workers often come from a wide range of religious and cultural backgrounds. This can lead to conflict: In December, for example, a company called Cargill Meat Solutions fired roughly 190 Muslim immigrants from Somalia after they protested the company’s break policies, which affected workday prayer time. Or, to take a case from retail: Samantha Elauf, a Muslim teen, was turned down for a job at Abercrombie because of her headscarf. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled nearly unanimously that the company had discriminated against her.