France: Report on the “state of health” of priests to gain insight into the risk of burnout and depression

The findings of a survey commissioned by the Permanent Council of the French Bishops’ Conference on the physical and mental health of  priests shows that they are overworked especially in rural areas, affected by depression, which in 2% of cases results in burnout; with clergy suffering from high rates of overweight and obesity; alcohol abuse in 2 out of 5 priests, and most of all isolation and loneliness: more than half of the priests live alone. The Report was presented to the French bishops during their plenary on November 25, and to the press yesterday evening. The purpose of the survey – reads the Report – was to gain insight into signals of health and stability of life issues reported by a number of diocesan priests, with a view to identifying the main concerns, while also developing working plans and preventive and supportive practices to improve the quality of life of priests. This is the first study of its kind conducted in France. The survey was carried out by Union Saint-Martin from February to June 2020 with the involvement of 6,313 priests, from 105 dioceses, under the age of 75, representing 42% of all priests in France. The bishops wished to shed light on a number of tragic incidents that are causing concern. Over the past four years seven priests committed suicide in France. Catholic newspaper La Croix recalls that this year alone, at the end of August, two priests took their own lives in the space of 15 days. During the presentation of the Report, Msgr. Benoît Bertrand, Bishop of Mende, Chairman of the Working Committee, underlined the high number of priests who accepted to respond to the questionnaires, thus providing the Church of France with “abundant and important” information.

“This research,” the Bishop added, “is also a way to convey our fraternal care and closeness to the priests.”

The work in the parish. On average, priests in France work 9.4 hours a day, a workload deemed excessive by almost 20% of priests, with almost a day and a half of rest per week and four weeks of vacation per year on average. 85% of respondents were involved in parish ministry. However, data also indicate a difference in workload between priests engaged in rural parishes with greater numbers of communities entrusted to their care, as compared to priests based in urban areas who can carry out their ministry with greater ease.

Over 50% of priests live alone.

Physical health. In terms of physical health, 93.3% of priests said they are in good health, although 45% of respondents have a chronic disease. Few are smokers and most priests engage in regular physical activity. 43% of priests are overweight and 20% are obese, which increases predisposition to chronic diseases. Drinking is another concern. More than two in five priests reported that they abuse alcohol.

8% of respondents suffered from chronic risk or alcohol addiction.

Mental health. Almost two in ten priests showed signs of depression. Some 7% experienced a condition of “professional exhaustion” while almost 2% reported work-related burnout, corresponding to 44 priests.

“44 priests suffering from burnout are far too many,” said Msgr. Benoît Bertrand.

The Report provides a list of recommendations to best prevent clergy from being exposed to harmful conditions. These include: a plan against solitude, with a special focus on housing, the creation of a social-health service for practicing priests in each diocese, or the appointment of a counsellor who can be contacted by a priest and can intervene should difficulties arise.