Empowerment is the creation of an environment in which individuals from varied backgrounds and with varied abilities and experiences can fully participate in an organisation’s decision-making processes and operations. Traditional work premises, equipment, schedules, and practices can act as barriers to workforce participation for some individuals. Examples include:

  •    Individuals with caring responsibilities may find it difficult to balance those responsibilities with a full-time, on-site role
  •    Persons with a physical or cognitive disability may face challenges accessing traditional work premises, using standardised equipment and tools, and participating fully in work practices and processes
  •    Persons with mental illness may experience difficulties managing open-plan offices, traditional work schedules, and the performance of some tasks (e.g. high visibility assignments such as public speaking)
  •    Language barriers may prevent people from linguistically diverse backgrounds fully participating in workplace discussions or written communications
  •    Place of residence may cause strain linked to lengthy or costly commutes

Other individuals who may experience barriers to workforce participation include victims of domestic violence, individuals with faith and spirituality needs such as religious observances, nursing mothers.

Empowerment initiatives recognise that different employees face unique challenges at work and seek to accommodate for those differences by creating flexible, accessible, and supportive environments in which all individuals can participate in and contribute fully to work practices and decision-making. Empowerment supports equity by leveling the playing field through adjustments to physical workspaces, equipment and tools, work practices, and schedules such that workforce participation is open to all persons of working age, at all stages of their working life, irrespective of changing personal circumstances. Without empowerment, there is no equality of opportunity.

Disruptive empowerment

Best-in-class empowerment solutions seek to dismantle systemic barriers to workforce participation completely and permanently, as opposed to accommodations that level an unequal playing without disrupting biased mindsets or practices that create inequality.

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For example, Medibank’s parental leave policy seeks to disrupt gender-biased assumptions regarding child-raising by not distinguishing between primary and secondary caregivers. Also, ‘all roles flex’ pioneered by Telstra, by starting with the premise that all employees can access flexible working arrangements in some form, normalises flexible working and disrupts biases that limit the career progression of individuals who are unable to work traditional work schedules. In both these examples, the systemic cause of inequity is addressed (as opposed to treating the symptoms or consequences of inequity).

Elements of empowering workplaces

Empowering workplaces are flexible, accessible, promote mental health and well-being, accommodate for faith and spirituality needs, and offer language and cultural support.

(i) Flexible workplaces

Flexible working refers to work arrangements that fall outside of traditional working schedules being full-time employment, Monday-Friday, 9 am to 5 pm, at the employer’s premises. Examples of flexible working include:

  •    Part-time work
  •    Variable starting and finishing times
  •    Compressed work-weeks involving longer working hours over fewer days
  •    Job sharing
  •    Floating public holidays
  •    Time in lieu
  •    Cultural leave
  •    Caregiving leave
  •    Domestic violence leave
  •    Half-day leave
  •    ‘Buying’ additional leave
  •    Career breaks
  •    Working from home or other locations other than the employer’s offices
  •    Split-shifts
  •    Annualised hours
  •    Part-year or term-time employment
  •    Transitioning to retirement schemes.

Best-practice flexibility programs offer flexibility to all employees, irrespective of role or rank, albeit within the constraints of each job’s roles and responsibilities. Retail customer-facing roles, for example, may not be able to accommodate requests to work from home, but staff may be offered flexible hours or varied start and finish times. ‘All roles flex’ starts with the premise that everyone has the right to request and flexibility and that flexibility is not restricted to certain groups. This requires that managers start from a position of ‘yes’ to employee requests for flexibility and work collaboratively with their subordinates to develop a solution that works for all parties, both internal and external to the organisation.

For flexibility to succeed, roles and responsibilities must be clearly defined and workers and supervisors must establish an open and trusting relationship. Both parties must be trained to check in with other regularly to assess how the arrangement is working out and what adjustments might be required, if any, to improve outcomes for all parties, including the employee and their manager, customers, and co-workers. Success also requires attention to work practices to ensure that flexible workers are not excluded from work practices. Flexible working requires robust technology, restricted or rotating meeting schedules, and including flex workers in formal and informal group activities.

Flexibility programs stand the greatest chance of success over the long-term when there is a shift in an employer’s job design processes. This shift involves designing roles that are sensitive to an employee’s individual needs and preferences, rather than demanding employees ‘fit’ into predetermined schedules and inflexible role specifications. This can be challenging for organisations to conceptualise and operationalise at first, but the longer-term benefit of flipping job design from a role-centric to an employee-centric focus is supported by the robust business case outlined above. Designing jobs that meet the needs of skilled individuals, rather than seeking candidates that fit neatly into predetermined and inflexible job specifications is a more efficient and effective approach to recruitment as well as positive for engagement, retention, and productivity.

Flexibility programs are increasingly taking a team rather than an individual level approach. This involves shifting the focus from job design at the individual level to a focus on team design. Redesigning work at a team level rather than individual level recognises that flexibility arrangements impact the whole team, customers, and other internal and external stakeholders. Under a team-flex approach, the team leader works with the group to collaboratively design a team structure and assign responsibilities in a way that maximises organisational outcomes, workgroup performance, and individual productivity and well-being.

Implementing a flexible working arrangement is inexpensive but barriers to successful implementation can arise if supervisors do not adjust formal and informal assessments of performance from focusing on ‘time or visibility’ to focusing on ‘outcomes’. Training managers to monitor their unconscious biases regarding the career aspirations, ambitions, eligibility (e.g. only suitable for working mothers), role applicability (e.g. not suitable for front line staff or people leaders), and commitment of flexible workers is essential to a successful flexible working program. To help manage these biases, supervisors must be encouraged and held accountable for modeling flexible work. Unless leaders ‘walk the talk’ on flexible working arrangements, ingrained preferences for traditional work schedules will continue to hamper the career progression of workers on non-traditional schedules.

The business case for flexibility is robust. Drivers include:

  •    The attraction and retention of top talent: Accommodating for employees who are unable to work traditional office hours or who are seeking flexibility in where and when they work can open up a new pool of qualified and highly engaged talent for an organisation. Forty-three percent of respondents globally would prefer flexibility over a pay rise and contrary to preconceptions, a preference for flexibility is not confined to women, or more specifically, mothers—flexibility is one of the top five employment drivers for men. Almost one in five Australian workers (18%) have considered resigning in the last six months due to lack of flexibility.
  •    Improved customer service: Employers with flexible workforces are positioned to offer extended customer service hours outside the traditional, Monday to Friday, 9 am to 5 pm.
  •    Reduced cost base: Allowing employees to work from locations other than the employers physical premises can decrease investment in physical office space and car-parks. Flexibility can also have positive implications on an organisation’s cost base through improvements in retention. A study by Deloitte and Google reported that large organisations can save $350,000 per annum on hiring costs alone through a flexible workplace technology policy.
  •    Increased productivity: Flexible working can also improve productivity by giving employees control over when and where they will work. Workers can choose to work when free from other distractions, when most cognitively alert, and where they are most productive – improving efficiency and quality of work performed. Indirect benefits to productivity can flow from enhanced employee well-being as workers are better able to manage competing work-life demands, minimise lengthy and stressful commutes, reduce financial stress by decreasing expenditure on travel and parking, and engage in activities that support their physical and mental health. Stanford University report that home-based workers are 13% more productive compared with office-based colleagues.

Additional studies evidencing the benefits of flexibility include:

(ii) Accessible workplaces

Adopting the Australian Network on Disability’s (AND’s) definition, a disability is “any condition that restricts a person’s mental, sensory or mobility functions. Examples include hearing and vision impairment, depression and anxiety, conditions that restrict non-assisted movement. A disability may be caused by accident, trauma, genetics or disease and it may be temporary or permanent, total or partial, lifelong or acquired, visible or invisible.”

AND statistics report over 2.1 million Australians of working age (15 – 64 years) have some form of disability and that those individuals have both lower participation (53%) and higher unemployment rates (9.4%) than people without disability (83% and 4.9% respectively). Australian employment rates for persons with a disability are consistent with other developed nations. In developing countries, those rates worsen considerably, with 80% to 90% of people with disability of working age being unemployed. In Australia, disability discrimination accounts for the highest volume of complaints across the board to the Australian Human Rights Commission.

In the broader population (including individuals of non-working age), 1 in 5 Australians are persons with a disability and 35.9% of Australia’s 8.9 million households include a person with a disability. Although a significant number of consumers are impacted by disability, 36% of people with disability report that they are often treated less favourably than customers without disability and 28% of people with disability have experienced discrimination by one or more of the organisations they have recently interacted with.

Accessibility initiatives seek to remove barriers to employment and the use of goods and services for people with disabilities. Examples include:

  •    Flexibility in working hours, such as working part-time or starting and finishing later, or teleworking for part of the week
  •    Redistribution of tasks that a person with a disability finds difficult to perform
  •    Purchasing or modifying equipment like voice-activated software for someone with a vision impairment, an amplified phone for a person who is hard of hearing, or a digital recorder for someone who finds it difficult to take written notes
  •    Providing additional training, mentoring, supervision and support
  •    Providing an interpreter or captioning for a deaf employee
  •    Providing increased font size for people with vision impairment
  •    Providing agendas in electronic formats for people who find it difficult to manipulate pages
  •    Involving customers with accessibility needs in the testing of products and services
  •    Improving accessibility to physical premises, including ramps, automatic doors, and handrails
  •    Executive and financial support of employee networks and advocacy groups for people with disability
  •    Outreach employment initiatives (e.g. partnering with specialist disability recruitment providers)
  •    Offering disability confidence training to recruiters, people leaders, and customer-facing staff
  •    Effective grievance and feedback channels
  •    Positively representing disability in internal and external communications
  •    Mental health prevention and support (see below)

The business case for accessibility is well-defined. Not only do employers who commit to accessibility have access to a greater pool of skilled talent from which to recruit from, but effective accessibility programs also enable persons with a disability to perform at their best and achieve their full potential.

Having employees with a disability can also help employer organisations to better design and deliver products and services that meet the needs of customers and clients with disability. As an example, when a Barclays personal banker helped a visually impaired customer to personalise their debit card with a yellow piece of paper to make the card easier to read, management saw the potential of this innovative idea and decided to make it an accessible option for all customers. Working with the UK’s Royal National Institute of Blind People, the British Dyslexia Association, and Barclay’s internal employee disability network, the bank refined the concept and now offers a variety of high visibility debit card backgrounds to their debit account customers. Barclays were also leaders in audio cash machines (also known as audio ATMs or talking cash machines) that help blind and partially sighted people safely and independently withdraw cash and use other services. The cash machine panel includes Braille labels, as well as raised numbers on the keys and a funneled entry point for debit cards. Audio cash machines are also useful for people who have dyslexia or learning difficulties. On the flip side, organisations that do not consider accessibility in their design and delivery of goods and services open themselves up to legal risk. In Jan 2019, the Commonwealth Bank settled a discrimination case in the Federal Court launched by two blind Australians over the bank’s customer touchpad terminals, commonly found in cafes, restaurants and retail stores nationally. Touchpads pose significant issues for people who are vision-impaired because they have no fixed buttons for entering pin numbers.

Workplaces that display a genuine commitment to accessibility also benefit from increased engagement across the wider workforce. Seventy-three percent of employees who say they work at a “purpose-driven” company are engaged, compared to just 23 percent of workers who do not. Customers are also more loyal to organisations that walk the talk on diversity and inclusion. Customers from diverse backgrounds are three times more likely to avoid an organisation and dissuade others from their potential interactions, because of an organisation’s negative reputation on diversity. Further, business-to-business contracts are increasingly requiring third parties to disclose their accessibility efforts and achievements.

(iii) Mental health and well-being prevention and support

Mental illness is a disability but is considered separately here in recognition of the significant percentage of individuals who experience a mental health condition in their lifetime, the role of work stress in mental health, the benefits of positive employment for mental health and well-being and for recovering from mental illness, and the stigma attached to mental health that results in many employees suffering in silence, often to the further detriment of their well-being and employment prospects and progression.

Forty-five percent of Australians aged 16–85 years, experience a mental health condition during their lifetime. At any one time, 3 million Australians live with depression or anxiety and approximately one in every five Australians experience a mental illness each year. Despite the prevalence of mental illness, entrenched stigma contributes to loneliness, distress (shame and embarrassment), and discrimination against people with a mental illness, which may be more disabling than the mental illness itself. Stigma can prevent individuals from seeking help—delaying recovery or promoting a worsening of their condition.

There are many models of workplace stress but most share overlapping elements. Common organisational stressors in today’s workplaces include:

  •    Weak supervision and management support
  •    Interpersonal conflict
  •    Isolation
  •    Team dysfunction
  •    Job insecurity
  •    Excessive workloads, hours, travel and deadlines
  •    Workforce diversity
  •    Ineffective leadership
  •    High performance, competitive workplace culture
  •    Lack of meaning or purpose
  •    Poorly defined roles and responsibilities
  •    Ineffective feedback and grievance channels
  •    Variable compensation schemes
  •    Work-life conflict

Workplace stress is linked to low job satisfaction, ineffective performance, decreased motivation, increased absenteeism, burnout, depression, anxiety, and physical illness.

Although the workplace can be a source of strain, positive work environments and meaningful and secure employment can promote recovery from mental illness. Employment provides purpose and structure, and when the workplace is flexible and supportive, it can be an important source of self-determination, self-esteem, and social connection.

Given the prevalence of mental illness and the role that work can play in mental illness and recovery, the business case for promoting mentally healthy and supportive workplaces is clear. Mental illnesses are the largest single cause of disability in Australia, accounting for 24% of the burden of non-fatal disease. This has a major impact on youth and people in their prime adult working years. Analysis by the Productivity Commission found that of six major health conditions (cancer, cardiovascular, major injury, mental illness, diabetes, arthritis), mental illness is associated with the lowest likelihood of being in the labour force.  Persons with a mental disorder average three days out of role each month, compared with one day out of their role for people without a disability. Estimates of the annual costs of the productivity losses attributable to mental illness range from $10 to $15 billion. Improving workplace mental health and wellbeing increases productivity and reduces turnover and absenteeism. Further, global research has found that when employee health and wellness is managed well the percentage of engaged employees increases from 7% to 55%.

Best practice well-being initiatives involve the development of a positive work environment that supports and encourages mental and physical health and well-being. Elements of mentally healthy workplaces include:

  •    A clear code of conduct, anti-bullying and harassment training, zero-tolerance policy, effective grievance channels
  •    Job control—allowing employees input to how, when, and where they work. For example, flexible working arrangements.
  •    Clearly defined roles and responsibilities
  •    Open lines of communication to supervisors
  •    Remuneration structures, reward schemes, and work practices that foster collaboration and avoid excessive competition among colleagues
  •    Workplace fairness in assessment, development, promotion, and pay
  •    Reasonable workloads, hours, and performance targets
  •    Management support regarding the taking of leave and holiday entitlements and regular breaks
  •    Provision of skills development, information, and other resources necessary for job performance
  •    Initiatives that promote the formation of positive interpersonal relationships
  •    Effective and timely management of performance issues
  •    Clear reporting lines
  •    Regular one-on-ones with supervisors
  •    People managers who are selected, promoted and rewarded for demonstrating genuine concern about their employees’ well-being
  •    Engaging and meaningful work
  •    Training to develop management and leadership skills in emotional and cultural intelligence and psychological safety
  •    Provision of mental health education to transfer skills to employees for managing stress and promoting well-being as well as to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness
  •    Guidelines for employees on how to respond when approached by an employee with a mental health issue and how to approach employees regarding concerns linked to their mental health and well-being
  •    Confidential access to externally-provided professional support (e.g. Employee Assistance Programs)
  •    Wellness programs (e.g. subsidised health and fitness classes, gym memberships, meditation training, on-site yoga and meditation, healthy eating plans, fruit baskets etc.)
  •    Reasonable adjustments to work schedules and loads to support employees with mental health conditions
  •    Executive and financial support of employee networks for mental health and well-being
  •    Holding leaders and people managers accountable for developing positive and mentally healthy workplaces
  •    Actively discouraging excessive hours and modeling work-life balance by people managers
  •    Effective conflict resolution
  •    Celebrating successes and acknowledging achievements
  •    Transparent promotion, assessment and reward structures
  •    Employing best practices for buffering the stress of organisational change, for example, avoiding surprises, being transparent, engaging employees in dialogue
  •    Promoting cultural safety for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders 

Further resources for workplace well-being include:

(iv) Supporting faith and spirituality

We all subscribe to belief systems (which may involve agnostic beliefs) that significantly shape our meaning system and influence our responses, relationships, and day-to-day challenges and opportunities. Despite this, in secular Australia, religion is a workplace taboo. Consequently, many employees hide or downplay their beliefs at work. Masking faith and spirituality at work is an example of covering—active strategies that employees take to hide or downplay aspects of their identity to avoid stereotyping, bias, interpersonal conflict, discrimination or harassment. Covering has negative implications for employee engagement, well-being, and commitment. Also, when employees do not bring their whole selves to work, organisations cannot benefit from their difference.

Organisations can take active steps towards creating environments where employees feel safe expressing their faith and spirituality. These include:

  •    Normalising discussions about faith and spirituality in the workplace through town halls, panels, experts discussions, and other forums
  •    Reviewing holiday and leave entitlements for inclusiveness
  •    Accommodating religious attire and non-restrictive dress-codes
  •    Acknowledging and celebrating dates of religious significance across different faiths
  •    Establishing multifaith employee networks to encourage interfaith learning and dialogue
  •    Investing in respect and civility training
  •    Reviewing physical workspaces to ensure they accommodate for spiritual needs such as the provision of a quiet place for reflection or prayer
  •    Implementing all-roles flex and ensuring leaders are modeling and supporting its use for reasons related to faith and spirituality such as religious observances
  •    Implementing effective grievance procedures and adhering to a zero-tolerance policy for harassment

(v) Language and cultural support

Employers can support employees from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds by offering access to translation services, producing key written communications and documents in multiple languages, and offering cultural intelligence training or coaching.

Without the right foundation, employees who are thrust into a novel cultural setting with a sink-or-swim approach are likely to suffer the negative consequences of culture-shock for job performance, attitudes, and physical and mental health. Cultural intelligence training provides an opportunity to acquire and practice new skills in the safety of a classroom setting. Cultural intelligence training transfers the foundation of knowledge, skills, and abilities required to manage cultural diversity and improve performance in novel cultural settings. Cultural intelligence training also equips individuals with the skills they need to self-learn from their intercultural experiences. This avoids overwhelming them with long lists of ‘dos and don’ts’ and reduces the likelihood of disorientation when encountering novel scenarios.

How to ask employees about their individual needs

Managers should not presume their employees will volunteer information regarding how they can be better supported at work. They may be unsure of what support they can expect or feel uneasy about asking because of stigma or the risk of harassment, prejudice or discrimination.

It is important that managers reassure employees that they can raise any concerns about issues affecting them in or outside of work in confidence. Managers should be alert to the possibility that employees will not speak up when first asked and that they should continue to ask employees how they could better support them over the term of their employment. When employees feel that their supervisor’s support is genuine they are more likely to be forthcoming. Also, an employee’s needs change over time, so it is important for managers to check-in regularly with employees. Critical moments for approaching employees regarding their needs include onboarding, family changes (e.g. birth, adoption, death, marriage, divorce), upon approaching retirement age, if you notice a change in employee behaviour that could indicate mental distress or exhaustion, diagnosis of an illness or development of a disability.

Thank you for reading. With Gratitude,