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Employee wellbeing in the workplace

This chapter considers six aspects that are related to Indigenous employees’ wellbeing in the workplace:

  • supervisor support for flexible working practices
  • carer responsibilities and supervisor support
  • community obligations and supervisor support
  • bullying and/or harassment
  • discrimination
  • reporting discrimination, bullying and/or harassment.

Supervisor support for flexible working practices

A very large proportion of Indigenous employees (82%) continue to be satisfied with their supervisor’s support for them to use flexible work practices.17 This result is unchanged from that recorded in 2005.

The likelihood that Indigenous employees were satisfied with their supervisor’s support in this area varied for some segments of the workforce; for example:

  • satisfaction decreased as classification increased (86% of Indigenous employees at the apprentice/trainee/cadet/graduate and APS 1–2 levels were satisfied compared with 74% of staff at the EL2/SES levels—10% of EL2/SES staff were dissatisfied)
  • satisfaction decreased as agency size increased (89% of Indigenous employees in small agencies were satisfied compared with 81% in large agencies)
  • satisfaction levels were highest for Indigenous employees working in corporate/legal (88%) and regulatory (86%) roles.

Carer responsibilities and supervisor support

Just over half of Indigenous employees (52%) reported having carer responsibilities, a similar result to that in 2005. Indigenous employees are now more than twice as likely as all APS employees (25%)18 to have such responsibilities.

When asked for the first time in 2009 how satisfied they were with their supervisor’s support in assisting them meeting their carer obligations, eight in ten (78%) Indigenous employees with caring responsibilities stated they were satisfied.

Indigenous employees were more likely to have caring responsibilities if they were:

  • female (56% compared with 45% of males)
  • aged 35–44 years (68% compared with 22% of employees aged less than 25 years and 30% aged over 54 years)—employees in this age group also recorded the highest levels of satisfaction (81%) with their supervisor’s support
  • working outside the ACT (55% compared with 43% of employees inside the ACT)— those outside the ACT recorded lower levels of satisfaction with their supervisor’s support (79% compared with 85% in the ACT)
  • at the APS 5–6 (57%), EL1 (54%) or APS 3–4 (52%) classification levels—APS 5–6 and EL1 staff recorded higher levels of satisfaction with their supervisor’s support (around 84% each) than those at the APS 3–4 level (72%).

Indigenous employees with caring responsibilities were most likely to be caring for children 5–16 years old (60%), children under 5 years old (33%) extended family members (18%) and aged parents (15%). This pattern of results is consistent with that from the 2005 Census.

There was very little variation between different segments of the workforce in terms of for whom they had caring responsibilities; however, women (21%) were more likely than men (14%) to care for extended family members, and younger employees were most likely to be caring for children aged under 5 years old.

Community obligations and supervisor support

Almost two in five Indigenous employees (38%) had cultural and/or community obligations that took them out of the workplace. This is up slightly from the 33% of Indigenous employees who reported that this was the case in 2005.

When asked for the first time in 2009 how satisfied they were with their supervisor’s support in assisting them to meet their cultural and/or community obligations, almost three-quarters of Indigenous employees (72%) with such obligations were satisfied.

Indigenous employees were more likely to have cultural and/or community obligations if they were:

  • aged 45 years and over (40% compared with 23% of those aged less than 25 years)— employees aged 45 years and over also recorded the highest levels of satisfaction 78% with their supervisor’s support
  • at the EL2/SES (46%) and APS 5–6 (42%) classification levels—employees at these levels were also more likely than employees at most other classification levels to be satisfied with their supervisor’s support (80% and 76% respectively)
  • working in small agencies (60% compared with 45% of those in medium and 36% in large agencies)—employees in small and medium agencies (85% each) were also more likely to be satisfied with their supervisor’s support
  • working in program design and/or management roles (54% compared with 26% in corporate/legal and regulatory roles)—levels of satisfaction with their supervisor’s support ranged from 85% for employees working in regulatory roles to 51% of those in policy roles.

These results suggest that many Indigenous employees are satisfied with their supervisor’s support in enabling them to use flexible working practices and also in supporting them to meet their caring and community/cultural obligations. This is important for employee wellbeing given the substantial proportion of Indigenous employees with caring and cultural/community obligations.

Some examples of comments in relation to access to flexible working practices include:

I am confident that my Supervisor supports me when needed. I have never had to use my leave to attend cultural/community obligations but if or when I do I know that my Supervisor will support me.

[M]y manager is very supportive of my requests towards work/life family responsibilities. Although always approved I feel as if my ‘commitment’ to my extended family are not fully understood.

People may have attended Cultural Awareness programs, however, people choose what they would like to retain. I also believe the cultural awareness given did not include very important topics e.g.: funerals, men’s/women’s business (not in detail), visitors (extended families), local history, traditional/living in two worlds etc.

A really good supervisor can make this work/life balance WORK in real life by really being understanding and supportive. From my experience, I have had supervisors who ‘don’t give a rats’ about my cultural, family and carer responsibilities. They don’t come out and say it, the non-verbal communication is subtle and sooner or later this impacts on Indigenous staff performance.

…the senior management staff do not have a proper understanding of what cultural and community obligations are. They do not understand the concept of family in the Indigenous sense. Because of this, I find it difficult to rely on my supervisors and senior managers to understand my unique position.

This is one area that I am very satisfied with in my workplace. If you have to go you can go. The only element is funeral leave is identified as being available for use for immediate family members only. My extended family is my immediate family (uncles, aunts, elders who are my grandparents). The way non-Indigenous people view family to how we view family is very different. Culturally, [they’re] our mob we must go and bury them all together. So often this means taking leave of another nature to attend.

It would be more reasonable if the work/life balance was fair across the team and other team members with children were subjected to the same scrutiny as I am when my child was unwell. I actually provided medical evidence to verify without being requested, others are always accepted on face value and not questioned. Should be same rules for everyone.

The following sections consider harassment and/or bullying and discrimination, which are other important aspects that can impact on employees’ wellbeing.

Bullying and/or harassment

This section examines Indigenous employees’ perceptions about whether they had experienced bullying and/or harassment in the last 12 months, its basis, who was responsible, and the nature of the bullying and/or harassment.

Experiences of bullying and/or harassment in the workplace

Just over one in four Indigenous employees (27%) stated that they had experienced bullying and/or harassment in their workplace in the last 12 months (see Figure 16):

  • This is up slightly from the levels of perceived bullying and/or harassment reported by Indigenous employees in 2005 (23%).
  • Indigenous employees are more likely than all APS employees (17%)19 to say that they had experienced bullying and/or harassment in their workplace.

Figure 16: Perceived levels of bullying and/or harassment in the last 12 months by classification

Base: All respondents

Yes No Not sure
Training classifications 10.07 83.05 6.88
APS 1-2 21.45 76.43 2.11
APS 3-4 26.25 68.59 5.16
APS 5-6 29.13 67.11 3.76
EL 1 32.56 66.37 1.06
EL 2/SES 25.74 72.59 1.67
Overall 26.62 69.42 3.96

Indigenous employees were more likely to say that they had experienced bullying and/or harassment in their workplace in the last 12 months if they were:

  • female (27% compared with 20% of males)
  • working in large agencies (28% compared with around 20% in other agencies)
  • working in policy roles (37% compared with 21% in regulatory roles)
  • at the EL1 classification (33% compared with 10% at the apprentice/trainee/graduate/ cadet level) (see Figure 16).

Indigenous employees’ perceptions about experiencing bullying and/or harassment were also related to their career plans. Those employees who had experienced bullying and/or harassment were almost twice as likely as employees who had not experienced bullying and/ or harassment (23% and 13% respectively) to signal their intention to leave the APS in the next three years (see also the discussion about career intentions in chapter 8).

Basis of the bullying and/or harassment

Indigenous employees who had experienced bullying and/or harassment were most likely to identify it as being based on general employment/work issues (45%); perceived personality differences (37%); managerial style (25%); and/or work performance (25%) (see Figure 17).

Employees under 25 years were more likely than other employees to believe that the bullying and/or harassment was related to age (43%).

Figure 17: Basis of bullying and/or harassment—2005 and 2009

Base: Only respondents who had experienced bullying and/or harassment

2005 2009
General employment / work issues 44.29 44.66
Perceived personality differences 39.81 37.07
Managerial style 29.81 25.46
Work performance 24.04 25.38
Race/ ethnicity 17.97 19.90
Employment status 21.77 16.46
Age 9.56 6.73
Sex 10.62 6.70
Disability 2.90 3.81
Political opinion 5.88 3.15
Religion 1.54 2.22
Sexual preference 1.59 1.35

Person/s responsible for the bullying and/or harassment

Indigenous employees who had experienced bullying and/or harassment were most likely to identify someone more senior (other than their supervisor) (42%), their supervisor (40%) and/or a co-worker (37%) as responsible for the bullying and/or harassment.

  • The pattern of responses in 2009 was similar to that recorded for Indigenous employees in the 2005 Indigenous Census, as well as to that reported in the State of the Service Report 2008–09 for all APS employees.
  • There were no notable differences across various groups of Indigenous employees (e.g. location, age or classification).

Nature of the bullying and/or harassment

Consistent with the 2005 results, in 2009 Indigenous employees who said that they had experienced bullying and/or harassment identified the nature of the bullying and/or harassment as psychological rather than physical; for example:

  • humiliation through sarcasm, criticism or insults, sometimes in front of other employees or clients (52%)
  • persistent and unjustified criticism (50%)
  • intimidating or aggressive body language (45%)
  • deliberately withholding information (35%)
  • oral and/or written threats (30%)
  • shouting or screaming (20%)
  • acts of physical violence (1%).

The nature of bullying and/or harassment was generally consistent across various groups of Indigenous employees; however, employees aged less than 25 years (79%) were more likely than those aged 25–34 years (47%) to identify the nature of the bullying and/or harassment as humiliation.

Discrimination

This section examines Indigenous employees’ perceptions about whether they had experienced discrimination in the last 12 months, the basis of the discrimination, and who was responsible for it.

Experiences of discrimination in the workplace

Almost one in five Indigenous employees (17%) responded that they had experienced discrimination in their workplace in the last 12 months. This is similar to the levels of perceived discrimination by Indigenous employees in 2005 (18%). Nevertheless, it continues to be well above the 9% recorded for all APS employees.20

Indigenous employees were more likely to have experienced discrimination in their workplace in the last 12 months if they:

  • were working in the ACT (22% compared with 16% outside the ACT)
  • were working in large agencies (19% compared with around 10% in other agencies)
  • had graduate qualifications (23% compared with 16% for employees without graduate qualifications).

Indigenous employees’ perceptions about experiencing discrimination were also related to their career intentions. Those employees who had experienced discrimination were almost twice as likely as employees who had not experienced discrimination (25% and 14% respectively) to say that they plan to leave the APS in the next three years. This may in part also explain why Indigenous employees with graduate qualifications are more likely to intend leaving the APS in the next three years (i.e. it may be that discrimination is acting as a ‘push’ factor) (see also the discussion about career intentions in chapter 8).

Basis of discrimination

Indigenous employees who experienced discrimination were most likely to identify its basis as race/ethnicity (59%) (see Figure 18).

  • This is lower than the 68% of relevant Indigenous employees who felt this way in 2005.
  • Younger and older workers (i.e. those aged under 25 years and those aged 54 years and over) were more likely than other employees to report that the discrimination was related to age as well (48% and 25% respectively).

Figure 18: Basis of discrimination—2005 and 2009

Base: Only respondents who had experienced discrimination

Race/ ethnicity Sex Age Union/ non-union status Political opinion Disability Sexual orientation Religion
2009 59.15 14.20 12.53 9.42 8.92 5.63 4.26 3.91
2005 67.82 17.76 15.66 9.05 8.40 5.23 4.62 1.40

Person/s responsible for the discrimination

Indigenous employees who had been subjected to discrimination were most likely to nominate someone more senior (other than their supervisor) (47%) or a co-worker (40%) as being responsible for the discrimination. Almost one-third of relevant Indigenous employees (30%) nominated their supervisor as responsible for the discrimination and 15% nominated a client and/or customer.

  • The pattern of responses in 2009 was similar to that in 2005, although in 2009, relevant employees were less likely to nominate a co-worker as being responsible for the discrimination (40% compared to 47% in 2005).
  • Employees working in service delivery (24%) or administrative support roles (23%), at the APS 3–4 level (23%) or outside the ACT (21%) were more likely than other staff to nominate a client/customer.

Reporting discrimination, bullying and/or harassment

This section explores whether Indigenous employees use formal or informal support structures within their agency to report discrimination, bullying and/or harassment; the types of structures they use; and their level of satisfaction with the way issues are being dealt with. The final part examines whether Indigenous employees feel comfortable raising discrimination, bullying and/or harassment issues within their agency.

Use of agency support structures to report incidents

Indigenous employees who had experienced discrimination, bullying and/or harassment were asked whether they had raised their concerns through any formal or informal support structures in their agency. Just over six in ten Indigenous employees (61%) said that they had, up from the 52% in 2005. The increase in 2009 may in part reflect a slight change in the wording of the question used in 2005 and 2009.21

Indigenous employees who had been subjected to discrimination, bullying and/or harassment were more likely to have used support structures if they were:

  • working outside the ACT (62% compared with 57% inside the ACT)
  • women (59% compared with 50% of men)
  • at classifications below EL1 (at least 63% at other classification levels compared with 46% for EL1s and 41% for EL2s/SES).

When it came to the type(s) of formal and/or informal support structures that respondents used to raise concerns about discrimination, bullying and/or harassment, they were most likely to report that they had raised their concerns through a more senior manager—either their supervisor and/or a manager other than their supervisor (43% each). These were also the two support structures most frequently reported in 2005.

  • Other support structures that were commonly used included raising their concern with colleagues (30%), their agency’s HR area (21%), and/or the harassment/equity/diversity contact officer.
  • The pattern of use of these support structures was generally consistent across most groups of Indigenous employees.

Satisfaction with the way reported incidents are dealt with

Indigenous employees who had experienced discrimination, bullying and/or harassment and had raised their concern were asked how satisfied they were with the way that issues had been handled. Just over one-quarter of relevant employees (38%) were satisfied and a further 24% had a neutral feeling about the way the issues were being handled. The largest proportion of relevant employees (44%) was dissatisfied.

Levels of satisfaction were generally consistent across most groups of Indigenous employees; however, women (30%) were more likely than men (21%) to be satisfied, as were relevant employees in medium (45%) compared to large (25%) agencies.22

Although levels of satisfaction in 2009 remained unchanged compared with those recorded in 2005, lower levels of dissatisfaction were recorded in 2009 (44% compared with 54% in 2005). The decrease in dissatisfaction was offset by an increase in the proportion of relevant employees providing a neutral response (24% in 2009 compared with 16% in 2005).

Given the sensitivities and emotions often involved in cases of discrimination, bullying and/or harassment, it is unlikely that high levels of satisfaction will be recorded with the way such cases are handled. The higher neutral response in 2009 suggests that agencies may be improving the way they are handling reported cases of discrimination, bullying and/or harassment.

The low level of satisfaction among relevant Indigenous employees about the way that reported incidents of discrimination, bullying and/or harassment are dealt with (28%) reflects the low level of satisfaction reported by all APS employees. In 2004, some 34% of all relevant APS employees were satisfied with the way that reported incidents of discrimination, bullying and/or harassment were managed.23

Employee comfort in raising issues within their agency

Three-quarters of Indigenous employees reported that they were comfortable in raising discrimination, bullying and/or harassment issues within their agency. Indigenous employees were more likely to be comfortable in raising such issues if they were:

  • working in small and medium agencies (91% and 86% respectively compared with 73% in large agencies)
  • at lower classification levels (81% of APS 1–2s compared with 71% of EL2s)
  • working in service delivery roles (78% compared with 65% in policy roles).

Those Indigenous employees who were not comfortable in raising discrimination, bullying and/or harassment issues within their agency provided a range of reasons why they felt this way. Some of the common reasons included:

  • being deterred by potential repercussions
  • there was no point as nothing would be done about it
  • feeling that their report would not be taken seriously
  • a lack of trust in management
  • feeling their report would not be believed and/or that it would be too hard to prove.

Examples of some of the comments provided by employees include:

Fear of losing my job and I am already damaged by the bad experiences and I just want to survive in the job because I need the salary and don’t have any options to move out of the section unless I get another job.

Poor track record of dealing with bullying. Nothing ever seems to get done.

It would be covered up or ignored.

Afraid of reprisal—don’t trust the people I work with—with the exception of one or two people. Others not able to provide support as it will be deemed someone is taking sides and the issues are not listened to and are generally crushed and or marginalised or place the other person (who is witnessing) in as bad a situation as you are.

Lack of proof, as the criticism has sometimes been said to others and they do not want to ‘rock the boat’. It’s said in a joking way ‘ha ha you got the job because you’re Aboriginal’.

Key chapter findings

Managers who support staff to achieve work and life balance are key contributors to fostering employee wellbeing. Such support is particularly important for many Indigenous employees given that they are more than twice as likely as employees APS-wide to have caring responsibilities (52% and 25% respectively), and that 38% have cultural and/or community obligations that take them out of the workplace.

  • It is, therefore, a positive sign that Indigenous employees continue to report high levels of satisfaction with their supervisor’s support for flexible working practices.
  • Indigenous employees with caring, community and/or cultural obligations that take them out of the workplace also reported high levels of satisfaction with their supervisor’s support in assisting them to meet these obligations.

Results were less positive, however, in other important areas of employee wellbeing, including discrimination, bullying and/or harassment. Indigenous employees were twice as likely as employees APS-wide to report that they had experienced discrimination, bullying and/or harassment in their agency in the last 12 months. It is not clear why this is the case, but it is of considerable concern, especially since these unacceptable behaviours appear to have an adverse impact on retention—Indigenous employees who had experienced discrimination, bullying and/or harassment were almost twice as likely as those who did not report such negative experiences that they intend to leave the APS in the next three years.

It is of considerable concern that bullying and/or harassment appear to be particular issues for Indigenous employees in the following two groups:

  • Indigenous employees in large agencies were more likely than employees in medium and small agencies to have experienced bullying and/or harassment.
  • Similarly, EL1s were more likely than employees at other classification levels to report that they had been subjected to these negative behaviours.

Gaining an understanding of why bullying and/or harassment are higher among these two groups of Indigenous employees may enable agencies to develop strategies to improve the retention of these employees.

An additional challenge for agencies is building EL1s’ confidence and trust in agency support structures—EL1s were least likely to use formal and/or informal support structures within their agency to raise bullying and/or harassment issues.

Tackling the issue of discrimination, bullying and/or harassment requires a concerted effort from agencies, management and supervisors. It appears that two different but interrelated strategies will be needed as discrimination was seen to be predominately based on race/ ethnicity, whereas bullying and/or harassment was seen to be largely the result of management and work-related issues. There is also a need to shift from a culture where employees feel uncomfortable reporting such incidents because of perceived potential repercussions to one where a more culturally appropriate approach is taken to support employees who raise concerns.


17 For example, flex-time, personal leave, flexible working hours and part-time work.

18 The result in 2005 for all APS employees was 39%.

19 The result in 2005 for all APS employees was 17%, as well as at 30 June 2009, though with a significant reduction of about one third in the responses from one large agency (State of the Service Report 2008–09 p173).

20 2004 State of the Service employee survey. This was the last time that APS employees were asked whether or not they had experienced discrimination in the workplace.

21 In 2009, employees were asked about formal and informal agency support structures, whereas in 2005 the words ‘formal and informal’ were not included.

22 The result for small agencies is not provided due to the small number of relevant respondents.

23 2004 State of the Service employee survey. This was the last time that APS employees were asked about their satisfaction with the way reported incidents of discrimination, bullying and/or harassment were handled.