Without realising it some employers apply extra pressure on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees by asking them to educate their colleagues. This NAIDOC week HRM unpacks ‘cultural load’.
Work is exhausting enough without having to act as an unofficial spokesperson for your people.
Those belonging to minority groups will be all too familiar with this experience. Their employers – often with the best of intentions – will ask them to fill in knowledge gaps and impart wisdom
about how they themselves like to be treated and supported in the workplace.
While it’s incredibly important for employers to be consultative with employees when crafting procedures and policies, there’s a fine line between taking the time to include diverse voices in your decision-making and burdening certain employees with extra, unpaid work.
This is a common experience for Indigenous employees, according to a report from Diversity Council Australia (DCA) and the Jumbunna Institute of Indigenous Education and Research.
It’s called ‘cultural load’ and it can be particularly difficult to remedy because many employers are completely unaware they’re doing it.
It’s an often invisible additional load borne by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at work, where they are the only Indigenous person, or one of a small group, and are expected to become representatives of the Indigenous experience.
These employees are often asked to undertake extra responsibilities, such as educating the workforce on Indigenous history or systemic racism, and assisting in creating programs and policies, without acknowledgement and/or remuneration.
The report – titled Gari Yala, which means ‘speak the truth’ in the Wiradjuri language – is based on a survey of over 1000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees across Australia. On top of addressing cultural load, it also looked into Indigenous employees’ experiences of exclusionary practices, racism, lack of cultural safety and identity strain.
“A survey of this nature – one that explores Indigenous workforce participation from an Indigenous perspective – has never been conducted before,” says Nareen Young, industry professor at the Jumbunna Institute, and an Eora descendent.
“It reveals how [Indigenous employees’] mental and emotional wellbeing, and job satisfaction, are hampered by factors such as systemic racism and non-remunerated additional job responsibilities.”
Young hopes this research will affect organisational changes that could make workplaces more inclusive and ensure Indigenous employees’ cultural safety.
One of the report’s main findings was the high level of cultural load carried by Indigenous employees – nearly 40 per cent said they had experienced it.
“This might include undertaking additional activities, such as organising NAIDOC Week, providing cultural training, holding events and initiating Welcome to Country ceremonies.”
Out of the employees who experienced cultural load at work, 66 per cent said they were expected to do extra Indigenous-related work in addition to their day-to-day work responsibilities. Furthermore, 71 per cent said they were expected to educate their non-Indigenous colleagues about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and racism, and 69 per cent said they were expected to talk on behalf of all Indigenous people.
“This can be stressful for Indigenous employees,” says Young. “This [report] informs companies about Indigenous employees’ cultural load and how to ease them. Also, companies wanting to hire Indigenous employees should educate themselves about Aboriginal culture and history to [better] interact with their employees.”
Being open to hearing Indigenous employees’ stories is important, but it’s more important that they never feel pressured to share anything, adds Young.
“Professional wisdom is not free. Acknowledging the Indigenous-related work done in workplaces by Indigenous employees is important.” – Lisa Annese, CEO of DCA.
Given the impacts of intergenerational trauma, it can be quite difficult for some Indigenous people to open up about their experiences and history. Non-Indigenous colleagues need to understand this and respect Indigenous people’s choice to either tell their stories or refrain from doing so. Take your lead from the individual.
One of the major contributors to cultural load is widespread ignorance of Indigenous cultural practices, so employers should look to educate their people on Indigenous matters. Just make sure to engage an expert, Indigenous-led organisation, and pay them for their time and knowledge.
Think of it this way; you’d always expect cost to be associated if you engaged a consultant to come in and overhaul your hiring process, so why should an Indigenous person impart their expertise for free?
“This behaviour will not pass in any other area. Professional wisdom is not free. Acknowledging the Indigenous-related work done in workplaces by Indigenous employees is important,” says Lisa Annese, CEO of DCA.
We know from research by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare that Indigenous Australians aged 15-64 are 1.9 times more likely to not gain employment compared to non-Indigenous Australians.
Inadequate employment opportunities could cause some Indigenous employees to keep quiet about their cultural load – or perhaps view it as part and parcel of their role within the company.
“Also, there might be a fear that if they voice their concerns, it might make their employers wary of hiring Indigenous people in the future,” says Young.
Not addressing cultural load in your workplace will more than likely impact your bottom line. The report showed Indigenous employees experiencing a high level of cultural load were twice as likely to be dissatisfied with their jobs than those experiencing low levels. They’re also two times less likely to recommend the company to other Indigenous people and 27 per cent of people in the high cultural load group intend to look for a new job.
Ensuring cultural safety
“Cultural safety means being able to practise your culture free of ridicule or condemnation. It occurs when a workplace acknowledges, respects and accommodates difference,” says the report.
Worryingly, nearly 30 per cent of respondents said their workplace felt culturally unsafe, with many reporting feeling uncomfortable expressing their cultural and personal beliefs at work.
Young says ensuring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-related activities, strategies and work are Indigenous-led and informed helps create inclusive workplace policies – summing this up by saying “nothing about us, without us”.
The report suggests 10 points or ‘truths’ that organisations could observe to become genuinely inclusive of Indigenous employees.
These include recognising and remunerating Indigenous employees’ additional responsibilities, creating a culturally safe working environment, and ensuring Indigenous-related work is Indigenous-led and informed.
Instead of putting additional pressure on Indigenous employees, companies can turn to online resources and Indigenous-led organisations that operate to educate employers on Indigenous history and culture, says Annese.
Creating processes and policies that accommodate Indigenous customs will also help to include Indigenous employees and reduce cultural load, she adds. This could include flexible working conditions that honour Indigenous traditions, such as leave to attend ‘Sorry Business’, for example. Sorry Business is an Indigenous term for practices and protocols associated with death.
Annese adds that these policies need to be communicated to the entire workforce and that expectations need to be clear about where non-Indigenous employees can go to bolster their knowledge about Indigenous culture. This way, everyone is on the same page.
“By not employing Indigenous people, companies are missing out on learning from a significantly talented workforce,” says Annese.
“They will also bring in diversity, and research shows us how diversity helps in problem-solving, productivity and innovation.”
Resources for employers
HRM has written many times before about how workplaces can support Indigenous employees, and what policies they can implement to become culturally safe. Here are the top tips from some of these articles:
- Build a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) to put words into action. When HRM spoke to George Mifsud, director at Indigenous Defence and Infrastructure Consortium, he said one of the first things Indigenous employees will look for in an organisation is a RAP. Having a RAP in place will also help to guide your organisation on what further steps can be taken to create a more inclusive culture for Indigenous employees.
- Reevaluate your Indigenous employment policies. Are they inadvertently working against Indigenous inclusion? Could you create specific opportunities for young Indigenous Australians? Try looking at other organisations that have succeeded in this area. For example, Life Without Barriers, which won AHRI’s 2019 Stan Grant Indigenous Employment Award, seeks to recruit Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees and carers, engage in truth telling about Australia’s history, and promote a shared understanding of ATSI culture and achievements.
- Consider the importance of language. Language is considered an important part of identity for some Indigenous Australians. A number of organisations are working towards including more Indigenous languages and words into policies and everyday discussions. For example, employees at RMIT University sometimes sign off emails with “Noon Gudgin” meaning ‘thank you’. The University has also built an app and created flashcards to help students and employees learn local Indigenous languages. The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies has attempted to map all indigenous nations and their dialects here.
- Create mentorship programs for Indigenous employees. Mentorship programs can go a long way in helping Indigenous Australians hold continuous employment. Mark Spinks, Aboriginal employment and mentor coordinator at Babana Aboriginal Men’s Group, told HRM about the importance of mentoring when he recalled a story about placing two Aboriginal boys into jobs. They quit after a week and the employers complained to Spinks. However, Spinks says he could see the fundamental flaw that they couldn’t: “There was no mentoring in place and they encountered severe discrimination,” he said.
Learn more about supporting Indigenous employees by attending Tanya Hosch’s keynote at AHRI’s 2021 convention.