The impact of isolation is not always equal. Don’t risk losing valuable employees by failing to recognise your migrant workers’ needs.
Many Australian organisations rely on the skills of their migrant workforce. In fact, almost 1.3 million workers in Australia are recent migrants or temporary residents.
But with the festive season fast-approaching and travel restrictions in place for the foreseeable future, many of these workers will miss out on reconnecting with their family and friends back home.
Organisations risk alienating their migrant workforce if they don’t fill the gap in support needed to get through this difficult time. Here’s how you can help stave off the isolation blues.
The pain of isolation
COVID-19 has presented plenty of challenges for everyone, but Lisa Annese, CEO of the Diversity Council Australia, says migrant workers will be particularly feeling the pinch of isolation.
“If you’re part of a minority group already, the connection you have with family is deeply important as you may not have other types of support or a network in place. You might also come from a migrant group for whom family connection is even more important, so those two things at play can result in quite difficult circumstances.”
As an organisation with a high migrant workforce, professional services firm Accenture knows full well how difficult isolation and travel restrictions can be for migrant workers.
Sarah Kruger, Accenture’s HR lead for Australia and New Zealand, says that while there have been impacts across the entire organisation from an emotional and wellbeing perspective, their migrant workforce has experienced heightened levels of anxiety.
“If you’ve got family in different parts of the world and you’re disconnected from them, there’s that thought of ‘what if something happens to them – how do I stay connected and how do I get to them if I need to’.”
For some of Accenture’s employees who aren’t permanent residents or citizens of Australia, there’s an added level of concern around visas or what will happen to them if the project they’re working on comes to an end.
“Large proportions of the workforce are concerned about things like job security, health security, family security, economic security – all of which are magnified for that group,” she says.
Anisha Thapa, career pathways and partnerships officer at Sydney’s Community Migrant Resource Centre, says this time of year is proving to be tough in 2020.
“This is a festival period, particularly for South Asians, and I’ve heard from many people that not being able to go overseas is causing them anxiety. Our staff is made up of migrants and we also work with migrants, and while many of us feel that Australia is a safe place to be, it’s often not the case overseas which causes an additional level of stress.”
Valuing your migrant workforce
Angela Knox, associate professor of HRM and industrial relations at the University of Sydney’s Business School, says organisations should pay attention to how they treat their migrant employees because of the valuable skills they can bring to the workplace.
“If you don’t look after them and retain them then you’ll lose what are very valuable skills. Employers tell us in surveys that their migrant workers are extremely adaptable, have a strong work ethic and tremendous levels of loyalty, so there’s a great deal to be gained by fostering this particular group of workers,” says Knox.
One of the main reasons people walk away from their jobs is when they feel their trust in management has been breached or violated in some way.
“If your employees thought they were working in an environment where they were well-supported and when it came down to it they weren’t, that feeling of being let down, of expectations not being fulfilled is a real driver of turnover and turnover intention,” she says.
There can also be an impact on productivity for those who choose to stay put. Employees who don’t feel supported may be less inclined to go to the extra lengths that make them good organisational citizens, says Knox.
“Organisational citizenship behaviour is so critical for creating and maintaining a competitive advantage. These are the kind of behaviours that aren’t necessarily expected of employees, but when they go above and beyond the call of duty.”
A further business risk of a non-supportive culture is that it can have a flow-on effect.
“Employees are aware of the ways managers treat their co-workers and they will respond to that accordingly. Not only might migrant workers feel as if they’re being alienated and insufficiently supported, but their co-workers will also pick up on this and perhaps feel more hostile towards management.”
Customers, suppliers and stakeholders can also be very aware of organisational conduct so there’s a risk of tarnishing the organisation’s reputation and image, says Knox.
Creating a supportive environment
There are four quadrants to an inclusive workforce, says Annese. Two of those quadrants revolve around creating a respectful and psychologically safe working environment, and the other half is based on good human-to-human connection.
Particularly in a remote working situation, where you may be missing out on corridor conversations, it’s important to artificially recreate those scenarios and pay the utmost attention to mental health and wellbeing, she says.
You could have individual managers role-model inclusive leadership by going out of their way to check-in with employees, formal and informal communication touch points, and social activities that are respectful and inclusive that you conduct in a different and regular way.
Kruger says Accenture has taken a high-touch approach to its migrant workforce during this time, particularly those that are out here to work on specific projects.
Accenture has Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) in place which they push out weekly through their communication channels, but they’ve also provided dedicated HR support to their migrant workforce – including holding virtual community sessions, providing a constant point of contact for any questions that arise and specific support around areas such as visa and project implications.
“If people have needed extension or bridging visas or any of those sorts of things, we’ve helped to make that happen.”
Aside from regular check-ins, Accenture has connected their temporary migrant workforce as a group more exclusively, so they can have a level of communication and support through shared experience.
This is a support structure that Thapa says has been helpful throughout this time in her workplace.
“Because most of us are from migrant backgrounds we have informal chats where we listen to each other’s stories about what our home countries are going through with COVID-19. It’s good to have someone to talk to who understands and it makes it easier when you know you’re not the only one experiencing those worries.”
Transparency is also key to creating a psychologically safe workplace, particularly in such precarious times. Kruger says her organisation has provided continuous updates to their migrant workforce about any government decisions that may affect their employment.
“Every time there’s been a Federal or State announcement, our workforce and mobility team has looked very closely into what that means for our various workers out here on different visas. We have fact sheets with frequently asked questions that we continue to update and make sure we provide more context and content than people might see in the media.”
Even when a project comes to an end, Kruger says Accenture continues to support their migrant workers.
“We’ve helped some of our people get home, and when flights aren’t available, we help them financially. When they do get back home we help them settle back into work and keep a house here if they need to. Our travel and mobility team also continuously checks in throughout the entire process.”
Identifying the level of support
When offering support to your migrant workforce, it’s important to consider the level of support that different individuals need, says Knox. Not everyone is in the same boat, and lumping people together is not exactly an inclusive practice.
Knox says managers should broach the conversation in a respectful way, but let their employees pinpoint their needs.
“Rather than simply jumping straight to, ‘do you need psychological support’ which might be a little alarming to some, try and turn it around so the support areas are identified by the workers themselves.
“It may be that they require particular EAP-based support, or perhaps referral to psychological support if the organisation is unable to provide it – especially if they’re feeling very isolated and anxious. They might also require some further time off or additional access to childcare – however you’re able to support these needs they’ve identified as important and essential.”
The role of inclusive social activities
However your workplace has been coming together socially this year, it’s important to consider the cultural traditions of your migrant workforce.
Kruger says Accenture marks festivals or dates that are important to their migrant workers, such as Diwali which is coming up in November.
“We make sure these dates are acknowledged and factored into our timeline for projects so our migrant workforce feels respected and included.”
Thapa says her workplace similarly marks different cultural calendar events. “We celebrate Christmas but we also hold small events around Diwali and Eve, such as a morning tea or lunch.”
As we approach the end of the year, celebrations will vary state to state. But Annese says it’s important to conduct these rituals in a respectful and inclusive way – whether in-person in large or small groups, or virtually.
“We tend to go a bit crazy at the end of the year, because it’s not just Christmas or Hanukkah we’re celebrating, but summer,” she says.
“If you’re able to get together in a physical sense, make sure that it doesn’t just centre around alcohol and it’s inclusive of everyone’s religious holidays and festivals. Things like having floating holidays are really helpful ways for organisations to recognise the multi cultural-identity of their workplace.”
If you feel like you’re missing your network, AHRI has moved many of its events online. Check their Events and Networking page and stay connected.