Maria Ledstam

Ethical perspectives on work

– When religion and work are intertwined, it can be a positive experience. But for some, it can also feel like a way for employers to exploit a worker's loyalty, says MF research fellow Maria Ledstam.

Maria Ledstam is a research fellow in ethics at MF.

Ledstam is a research fellow in ethics at MF. She studies ethical perspectives on work. Her project can be described as empirical ethics.

– More specifically, I'm looking at, through field work and ethnographic studies, how the meaning of work is negotiated in two global Christian organizations - one Catholic and one Protestant. Both organizations run social enterprises, she says.

Part of what Ledstam is looking at in her research is the relationship between religion and economics in work.


– A lot of people think that religion doesn't have anything to do with economics or work. In an academic setting, for example, one has often placed religion and economics in different spheres, says Ledstam.

She points out that there are many today who are drawing attention to the weakness of such a division. Instead, many are trying to shed light on the overlap and intermingling that exists between economics and religion, both in theory and practice. Ledstam's project can be seen as a part of this development, which is sometimes called postsecularism, or the new visibility of religion.

Positive - or exploitative?

– What actually happens when religious values and practices are integrated into the work of an organization or company?

– This question has been dealt with thoroughly by religious studies scholars, theologians, sociologists, psychologists and economists in recent years. A group of researchers is very positive to what they call ”workplace spirituality”. With few exceptions, studies looking at the co-mingling of spirituality/religion and work in companies describe this phenomenon as something positive - both for the company and for the employees, according to Ledstam.

She says that in these ”positive” studies, religion is mainly understood as something individual. In this way, questions about a broader ethical responsibility lying with companies, for example concerning wages, overtime, or the company's ethical responsibility when it comes to influencing the climate, are neglected.

– The overwhelmingly positive view of ”workplace spirituality” has been problematized by some researchers who claim that religion and spirituality at the workplace can be misused by employers. They can use it to gain social control, and to exploit workers, says Ledstam.

She gives an example of when a company, for example, offers yoga, prayer and meditation during work hours, it can simply be a way for the employer to get the workers to be happier at work.

– In this way, the employer gets the workers to become more loyal to the company in the sense that they work more and harder.

Practice rather than individual

– My contribution to this field is to look at religion in work, not primarily as something individualistic, but by studying practices. My project also contributes something new to the field since the organizations I am studying express a desire to be "holistic". That is, they wish to integrate religion in everything they do and are.

Ledstam says that the Catholic organization she is studying states, for example, that they, through their work, wish to be a part of creating an alternative lifestyle to the capitalism of the day.

– One of the issues that I am going to be looking for in the empirical material is whether the organizations are at all successful in finding cracks in the capitalist system that can pave the way for alternative ways of dealing with ethical challenges related to work and economics in our time.

Different ethical perspectives create tension

Ledstam did her fieldwork in the US and Canada. She used participant observation and interviews to study two workplaces belonging to the organizations Economy of Communion and Business as Mission.

She will analyze and discuss her findings in relation to theological and ethical questions about meanings of work. She has just begun to analyze the empirical material she has gathered.

– Something I can see clearly already is that many conflicts or tensions in the organizations arise between different ethical perspectives. One such clear conflict is when the organization on the basis of its Christian values gives part of its profit to different social projects, to mission and to the fight against poverty when, at the same time, the employees think they should instead have higher salaries. Another conflict arises when the employers would like the employees to use prayer rooms and meditation rooms during work hours, when the employees would rather just work when they are at work.