Over the summer, the Evangelical Alliance hosted a roundtable of member organisations discussing the impact of the pandemic on the economy, and what the church can do in response. One issue that stood out for several participants was employment and the future of work. While the furlough scheme has helped to mitigate the pandemic’s impact on employment, unfortunately many people have lost or will lose their jobs in this period and will need support. Many people are also reassessing what work should look like, following our experience of lockdown, and as Christians we can and should participate in this conversation as well. 

Unemployment

Many employers have struggled during the pandemic, and several in badly affected sectors have announced job cuts. The furlough scheme has helped to soften this blow, but even as the chancellor announces further measures in the Government’s winter economy plan, many people will be facing redundancy or job insecurity in the coming months. 

Unemployment covers a wide range of situations and needs. A young person struggling to enter the job market is in a different place from someone made redundant after 30 years in one sector. Or again, those who have been unemployed for weeks will have different needs from those unemployed for years. Indeed, every person will have their own circumstances that may either soften or sharpen the blow. Those made redundant may have complex needs connected with their loss of work, from debt to mental health issues to the need to acquire new skills for work in a different sector. 

The church’s response will need to be sensitive to these needs, both in our congregations and in wider society. There will be ways in which our churches and charities can help; for example, the Government has launched its Kickstarter scheme to help those aged 16 – 24, and this article from Rob and Nicci Birley of Cornerstone Resources sets out how Christians can get involved. 

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The ‘new normal’

Even those who have retained their jobs are thinking afresh about work due to the pandemic and lockdown. To give one example, our definition of essential workers’ has proved counter-cultural, as less prestigious roles have been revealed as vital for holding our society together.. 

Or again, in the light of widespread home-working in some sectors, people are starting to ask whether the five-day office job should still be the norm. Our greater online connectivity might allow more flexible arrangements which could restore some balance between work and life, and between cities and regions. Changes to employment practices, travel arrangements, and office layouts are already in progress – though it’s too early to say whether there will also be hidden costs arising from a reduction in face-to-face meeting. 

But it would be a mistake to focus discussion of the new normal’ exclusively on office-based professionals. In fact, it is precisely now that people are questioning the dominance of cognitive work in our culture’s idea of what a good’ job looks like. For example, journalist David Goodhart argues in his new book Head, Hand, Heart, that we need a rebalancing away from cognitive roles being the main source of status and towards being a society which offers multiple routes to prestige, including through caring or other professions. 

As the church, we may need to reflect on whether we’ve followed our culture’s bias in favour of cognitive jobs at the expense of others. After all, theTalking Jesus research, commissioned by the Evangelical Alliance, the Church of England and HOPE, revealed that 81 per cent of practising Christians in the UK have a university degree, compared to around 42 per cent of the population as a whole.

Overcoming this cultural bias will also mean addressing actual working conditions in many different roles. If there’s to be a reassessment of working patterns and quality of life in graduate jobs, our leaders in church and state will need to work hard to listen to people outside these roles too – people whose experiences of work and lockdown have been very different – so that any benefits of any reappraisal of work truly reach across society. 

Working conditions

All this means that now is the time to think about working conditions as well as employment. Resources produced by the Evangelical Alliance with others have often dwelt on issues faced specifically by Christians in the workplace. For example, Speak up has a section on sharing faith at work, while the broader Christianity in the workplace booklet is a guide for employers to help them respect the beliefs of Christian employees. 

However, we would not want Christian issues’ to be the limit of our engagement with the workplace. Instead, we’d want to see religious freedom set in a wider context of employers respecting the private lives and individual circumstances of their employees. In fact, often an issue for Christians will be an issue for everyone in a different way; therefore an employer who is reasonable about the religious convictions of their workers is good for everyone, not just for Christians. 

This may soon be demonstrated in practice as, in response to the pandemic, the Government appears once again to be seeking to liberalise Sunday trading . Previous proposals have drawn criticism not only from Christian leaders, but also from trade unions and small businesses. Besides being difficult for Christians, liberalisation would privilege large shops over their employees and their smaller competitors alike. 

As Christians we’ll have a vision for the workplace that goes beyond our own rights, and also one which judges work by more than salary and basic conditions. Christians have of course been at the forefront of campaigns against modern slavery, and in favour of a living wage, but we’ll want to think as Christ would about many other work issues too: from opportunities for connection with others to work-life balance and the right to a private or family life. 

As Parliament and others meet to consider these issues, what do you think they should prioritise in the light of the pandemic? Does your church have ways of helping those seeking work which could be shared with others? 

Feel free to get in touch with us at j.​coleby@​eauk.​org