Introduction by Croakey: The racism and toxic public debate that surrounded the recent referendum for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament are an ongoing threat to health and wellbeing, concerns that are heightened each year during the period around 26 January.

In this context, it is especially important that organisations ensure they are doing everything possible to support the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees, according to the authors below, who provide some practical advice and strategies.

Tanja Hirvonen is a Jaru, Bunuba and Wakaya woman, and a clinical psychologist; Kelleigh Ryan is a descendant of the Kabi Kabi people of South-East Queensland and the Australian South Sea Islanders on her mother’s side and  a registered psychologist; and Dr Nicole Tujague is a descendant of the Kabi Kabi nation from Mt Bauple, Queensland and the South Sea Islander people from Gaoa Island, Vanuatu, and provides training around culturally safe, trauma-informed practice and care.

Tanja Hirvonen, Kelleigh Ryan and Nicole Tujague write:

Supporting wellbeing at the organisational level is becoming increasingly important as work in Australia has changed, with increased mobility, travel, digitisation, and the blurring between home and working lives. Particularly post pandemic. The way that organisations manage wellbeing also needs to change.

Workplaces are reflective of the society in which they are located. Not surprisingly, racism and discrimination will be experienced in many working environments in Australia. There is an expectation that when employees go to work, that they should leave with the equivalent or enhanced wellbeing, influenced by work satisfaction from their work duties. Workplaces should not be places of physical or psychological harm.

Our wellbeing is linked to the way government responds to significant issues, and this also rings true for organisations as well and how they respond. In 2022 and 2023, leading into the referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, media platforms were alight with yes, no, undecided, opinion pieces, memes, and statements.

It was during that time that racism was also laid bare. So much so, that the Human Rights Commission provided a resource kit which focused on human rights during that time and talked about minimising harm in conversations as reports of overt racism were on the rise.

The Australian Indigenous Psychologists Association (AIPA) received many requests to support, debrief and talk to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and wellbeing professionals.

Some psychologists contend that within their careers, they have never felt, seen or heard experiences of racism this hurtful and harmful.

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, recognition of collective trauma must be acknowledged and collective healing planned for.

The Diversity Council Australia’s Racism at Work report surveyed 1,547 people about racism in the workplace. It found that racism is widespread among racially marginalised populations.

Do more, do better

Yes, it is true that many organisations resource wellbeing supports for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees and organisations. However, it is also true that organisations need to do more.

Let’s look behind the scenes of organisations to see what is genuinely needed to support the wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees.

Employment Assistant Programs (EAP) should not be the only thing on offer. EAP has an important place, but it shouldn’t be the only offering. When it is offered, it should be provided by professionals who know a good deal about racism and issues that impact on Indigenous populations.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees accessing these services should not be put in the position of training culturally unaware professionals.

Consider how your EAP can reach out into the workforce being proactive, rather than reactive, to the needs of Indigenous employees.

Creating safe spaces to talk about issues that matter. When organisations bring in experts to help employees process what they are experiencing and feeling, this can be very helpful. Hint: don’t do the equality thing and invite everyone to the first gathering; instead, place importance on cultural sensitivity for both invitee and practitioner, enhancing wellbeing support responsiveness.

If the topic is on Indigenous people experiencing racism, invite those who experience racism first, and then look at inviting other groups in later.

Safe spaces are called safe spaces as they offer the individual a place to talk openly and safely without the need to qualify or explain their experiences, this is the meaning of safe spaces.

Creating safe spaces also includes incorporating culture into all levels of your organisation, whether it be acknowledging significant dates and milestones (to celebrate or to reflect upon); protocols that reflect cultural safety such as ‘Welcomes’ and ‘Acknowledgement’ at internal and external meetings; HR practices that recognise special leave requirements such as for Sorry Business or other Cultural Leave; and ensuring staff are trained in cultural safety and trauma-informed practice.

Stress management techniques alone will not suffice. Wellbeing is a personal responsibility, but the organisation should also be responsible for providing and supporting a safe place of employment.

Asking and expecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to journal, meditate and practise deep breathing when faced with racial trauma is not only ineffective, but can be considered harmful and unethical. These techniques can be helpful of course, but certainly not on their own.

Creating safe places of employment

We have just had the referendum and are now heading into the contentious date of 26 January. There will be conversations and debates for the next few weeks.

What else can an organisation do to systemically and more broadly create and maintain safe places of employment?

Organisations can continue to improve wellbeing systemically if they consider:

Commitment: Commit to being an organisation that has wellbeing front of mind. This includes adequate resourcing for wellbeing – is wellbeing considered a priority within operational planning and budgeting?

Connections: Connect wellbeing to the vision, purpose, and values of the organisation.  Wellbeing should be championed in every layer of the organisation. This means policies, messaging, and timely and safe processes to provide support when significant issues arise.

Do the policies and strategies within the organisation promote and preface wellbeing? For instance, is there zero tolerance to racism?

Education: Executive leaders will need to put in consistent work to understand local, national, and global dynamics that may impact on Indigenous peoples and act or support accordingly. It is not solely the Indigenous employee’s responsibility to not only do their role, but to also provide strategic advice and education to the organisation.

Supporting Indigenous employment and growth: This is not just a numbers game; are there Indigenous employees and do you have strategies to support the growth and retention of Indigenous employees?

Hiring processes, culture and employee support systems, succession planning and growing careers need a proactive focus. Is there Indigenous representation on the Board and, if not, why not?

Author details

Tanja Hirvonen is a Jaru, Bunuba and Wakaya woman, and a clinical psychologist. She is the Director of Wellbeing at ABSTARR Consulting. Tanja holds a double degree in psychology and human resource management. Tanja has a research and clinical background and has extensive experience in working with individuals, families, and organisations in regard to social and emotional wellbeing and complex trauma. Tanja is a current Board Director of the Australian Indigenous Psychologists Association (AIPA), Thirrili and Black Dog Institute.

Kelleigh Ryan is a descendant of the Kabi Kabi people of South-East Queensland and the Australian South Sea Islanders on her mother’s side. She have been a member of the Australian Psychological Society since 2009. She is a registered psychologist with Australian Health Practitioner Registration Agency (AHPRA) with a small private practice and a consulting company called The Seedling Group. Kelleigh has a strong history of working with Indigenous and non-Indigenous clients and communities who have experienced trauma. She has worked across many areas of practice from Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), child and adolescent mental health, family wellbeing, critical incident response, child sexual abuse, Stolen Generations survivors and cultural safety in clinical supervision. Kelleigh holds a seat on the Australian Indigenous Psychologist Association Board (AIPA) and is one of the founding members of the newly formed First Peoples of the World Psychology Network. In 2019 Kelleigh was honoured with the Indigenous Allied Health Australia’s prestigious “Lifetime Achievement Award” and was the first Aboriginal Psychologist to be appointed as a clinical assessor on the Psychologist Panel of Assessors for the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal (QCAT).

Dr Nicole Tujague is a descendant of the Kabi Kabi nation from Mt Bauple, Queensland and the South Sea Islander people from Gaoa Island, Vanuatu. She grew up on the Queensland Aboriginal communities of Bamaga, Kowanyama, Woorabinda and Yarrabah and has worked with students from 91 Indigenous communities across Australia including 190 scholarship students and their families. She is a full time director of The Seedling Group Consultancy, which conducts research and evaluation and delivers training around culturally safe, trauma-informed practice and care. They run Wellness Rooms at Conferences and forums. Nicole has lectured in the areas of Indigenous Social and Emotional Wellbeing to undergraduate and post-graduate (Social Work) students at Southern Cross University over several years.

Nicole and Kelleigh are co-authors of ‘Cultural Safety in Trauma-Informed Practice from a First Nations Perspective: Billabongs of Knowledge’, published in 2023, which provides an accessible resource for conducting culturally safe and trauma-informed practice with First Nations’ peoples in Australia. Designed by and for Australian Indigenous peoples, it explores psychological trauma and healing, and the clinical and cultural implications of the impacts of colonisation, through an Indigenous lens.

This article was originally published in Croakey. To view the original article, click here.