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Decolonisation of the workplace! Is more important than ever

“Black Lives Matter, the impacts of coronavirus and the rise in bushfires and floods are the natural consequence of colonisation… systems set up to privilege white men’s property rights over all others has given rise to a gross imbalance in distribution and sustainability of the globe’s resources – human, cultural, economic, social and natural. As such the calls for decolonisation have become louder and more unified. Indigenous peoples are leading the calls, but many in ‘mainstream’ sectors are starting to see the wisdom and criticality of Indigenous knowledges to contemporary wicked problems.’– Professor Gregory Phillips, CEO of ABSTARR Consulting.

Pandemic’s impact on wellbeing

The psychological wellbeing of many people in Australia has been tested for many reasons,  primarily due to the impacts  COVID-19 (Follent et al., 2021).  In recognition of this and to support Australia’s increasing mental health needs, the Government delivered the largest investment into mental health and suicide Australia has ever seen (AIHW, 2021).  While we must celebrate and acknowledge everyone’s resilience and strength in the face of the pandemic, we must also acknowledge the psychological impacts on people’s lives and the challenges presented during the pandemic and the years following.  Some groups of people were impacted more acutely than others, dependent on circumstance. Other groups equally flourished.  

The pandemic highlighted inequities in health and wellbeing care in various spaces, especially for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and communities.  For instance, prior to the pandemic Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples had additional social and emotional wellbeing challenges such as social and economic inequalities and a higher burden of chronic health, grief and loss, and compromised wellbeing (Dudgeon et al., 2014; Fitts et al., 2020).  Further, the pandemic has set Australia back socially and economically, and there needs to be a focus on Aboriginal Peoples in the reconstruction of life – post crisis – as they will have unique needs which have largely been unaddressed even pre-covid (Markham et al., 2020).

Workplace wellbeing

Concern for all Australians mental health is paramount.  This is particularly relevant for the workforce, where the workforce has had ongoing uncertainties, working from home, not working, transitioning to virtual work, and health disciplines working longer and harder in the areas hit hard by COVID-19.  

The unfortunate pandemic fortunately fuelled a drive for change for workplace wellbeing.  Organisations were and are swiftly reacting to the wellbeing needs of the workforce by employing people in wellbeing positions, updating policies for hybrid models of working from home and in office, training, procedures, and introducing wellbeing initiatives.  In September 2021, The National Mental Health Commission released a first iteration of a Blueprint for Mentally Healthy Workplaces (NHMC, 2021). 

“Workplace wellbeing is definitely not new; it feels as if the pandemic has completely placed workplace wellbeing – front and centre” – Tanja Hirvonen, Director of Wellbeing ABSTARR Consulting.

There is momentum to improve workplace wellbeing. But for who?

Not surprisingly, Aboriginal peoples will continue to have the same challenges prior to pandemic.  It has been reported there will be a likely continuation of racial discrimination and the ongoing impacts of historical social exclusion in the workplace (Dinku, Hunter, Markham, 2020), and in some cases, the pandemic may exacerbate existing structural racism, as evidenced by the failure of the New South Wales government to protect, prevent, support, prepare and vaccinate western NSW Aboriginal communities from the recent COVID-19 Delta variant. 

By comparison, it is interesting that Koories (Aboriginal Peoples in the state of Victoria) had some of the highest vaccination rates in Australia (Department of Health, 2021), despite being from a group that experiences significant levels of racism in the public health system that directly impacts on closing the gap in health outcomes (Markwick et al., 2019).  What was it in Victoria’s approach – perhaps an enabling environment of supporting Aboriginal self-determination as official state government policy, and prioritization of Aboriginal community-controlled health organisations for vaccine supply – that is different to the New South Wales government’s approach to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health care? The New South Wales government talks a big game of Aboriginal community ‘decision-making’ and ‘partnership’, but when push comes to shove, and the chips are down, are they really interested in listening to and prioritising local Koori voices and their health care needs, vis-à-vis, you know, self-determination?

Rather than merely seeking to include Aboriginal peoples (often as an afterthought) in systems that produce and reinforce inequities, COVID-19 has shown us we must dismantle and reform the systems themselves. The goal must be decolonisation; for everyone’s benefit.

Dismantle and reform systems of inequity (decolonisation)

Decolonisation includes actively dismantling systems of inequity (sharing power and resources) and dismantling white supremacy in thought (redressing the mistaken belief that the western canon of knowledge and knowledge production is the only valid system of science). Decolonisation includes critical processes of situating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ways of knowing (epistemology), being (ontology) and doing (axiology) in the front and centre, and embedded within systems, that work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (Dudgeon et al., 2020). 

While decolonisation is in everybody’s interests (think about the benefits of Aboriginal management of country in preventing bushfires and blocked waterways), decolonisation in the workplace for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples centres on issues like poor recruitment and retention processes, limited supports and vague procedures for dealing with interpersonal and institutional racism, ways of managing lateral violence and performance measures only being based on mainstream values and definitions of success.  Decolonising an organisation must be intentional, resourced and based on ethical, moral and legal motivations for workplaces to learn and apply respectful ways of ensuring Indigenous self-determination and institution-wide responsibility.

We’ve got this – ABSTARRIFICATION

ABSTARR stands for Aboriginal Straight Talking with Responsibility and Respect and is a proud Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander management consulting business established and led by Professor Gregory Phillips.  ABSTARR are devoted to the art and science of decolonisation, through delivering excellence in strategy, training, and evaluation.  We aim to make a difference in the cultural safety of workplaces for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal workers and workplaces by fighting racism, designing critical systemic changes, and demonstrating impact in deep learning and reform.  ABSTARR are aware of other organisations, academics and disciplines that work towards and support decolonisation, and we celebrate them.

Aboriginal Excellence

ABSTARR attends to our work by using the collective knowledge of our ancestors and what we have learned along our life journeys.  Post-pandemic, all of us in Australia and across the globe are being asked to reappraise the systems that give rise to inequities, the way that we work with those that use our services, the way that we support those in the workplace, and how we care for others.  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander wisdom and knowledges have surpassed 60 000 years, and we are the first and longest continuously surviving scientists on the planet., Perhaps mainstream organisations may also equally benefit from this wisdom around decolonisation and workplace wellbeing

References

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) 2021, Mental health services in Australia, viewed 17 October 2021, https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/mental-health-services/mental-health-services-in-australia

Dinku, Y., Hunter, B., & Markham, F. (2020). How might COVID-19 affect the Indigenous labour market? Australian Journal of Labour Economics, Vol 23, No. 2.

Dudgeon, P., Bray, A., Darlaston-Jones, D. & Walker, R. (2020), Aboriginal Participatory Action Research: An Indigenous Research Methodology Strengthening Decolonisation and Social and Emotional Wellbeing, Discussion Paper, The Lowitja Institute, Melbourne.  

Dudgeon, P., Alexi, J., Derry, K., Brideson, T., Calma, T., Darwin, L., Gray, P., Hirvonen, T., McPhee, R., Milroy, H., Milroy, J., Murray, D., & Sutherland, S. (2021) Mental health and well-being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia during COVID-19. Australian Journal of Social Issues, 00, 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajs4.185 

Dudgeon, P., Wright, M., Paradies, Y., Garvey, D. & Walker, I. (2014) Aboriginal Social, Cultural and Historical Contexts. In: Dudgeon, P., Milroy, H. & Walker, R. (Eds.) Working Together: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health and Wellbeing Principles and Practice. Barton: Commonwealth of Australia, pp. 3–24. 

Fitts, M S, Deborah Russell, Supriya Mathew, Zania Liddle, Edward Mulholland, Clarissa Comerford, and John Wakerman. “Remote Health Service Vulnerabilities and Responses to the COVID‐19 Pandemic.” The Australian Journal of Rural Health 28.6 (2020): 613-17. Web.

Follent, D., Paulson, C., Orcher, P., O’Neill, B., Lee, D., Briscoe, K., & Dimopoulos-Bick, T. (2021). Medical Journal of Australia, 214 (5),. 199-200.e1. ||  doi: 10.5694/mja2.50948

Markham, F., Smith, D. & Morphy, F. (2020). Indigenous Australians and the COVID-19 crisis: perspectives on public policy, Topical Issue no. 1/2020, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Australian National University, Canberra. https://doi.org/10.25911/5e8702ec1fba2 

Markwick, A., Ansari, Z., Clinch, D. et al. Experiences of racism among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults living in the Australian state of Victoria: a cross-sectional population-based study. BMC Public Health 19, 309 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-019-6614-7

National Mental Health Commission (2021). Blueprint for Mentally Healthy Workplaces, Release 1, September 2021. Retrieved 17.10.2021 from https://www.mentalhealthcommission.gov.au/blueprint-for-mentally-healthy-workplaces

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