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Supporting our most vulnerable workers

Most workplaces will have vulnerable workers within their workforce. They’re often unable to protect themselves against harm or exploitation, so workplaces have additional responsibilities to support them. Vulnerable workers can include, for example, young workers just starting out, casual workers, workers with long-term mental or physical health conditions, Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Australians and workers who migrated from non-English speaking countries.

Not all people within these groups need additional support, but it’s important that workplaces put strategies in place to support those that do.

Vulnerable workers with existing health conditions more commonly face other challenges

More than a quarter (27.7%) of workers reported a mental, physical or other health condition that has limited their daily activities and/or paid work options for at least six months. Nearly a third (29.6%) of those workers say that their mental health has declined compared to a year ago, with many reporting feeling isolated (27.3%) and suffering from work-related insomnia (21.4%) during the last 12 months.

High proportions of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Australians (60.9%), workers aged 18 – 24 years (66.4%) and casual workers (58.2%) experienced mental health conditions over the same period, well above the national average of 53.5%.

Graph showing the impact of workplace on mental health condition

Table – Proportion of vulnerable workers who reported experiencing a mental health condition, isolation or work-related insomnia in the last 12 months.

Vulnerable workers typically also faced more challenges than other workers that could impact their mental health including:

  • Lack of flexible work arrangements
  • Lack of appropriate tools and resources
  • Violence from people in and out of the workplace (e.g., colleagues or customers)
  • Sexual harassment and assault
  • Discrimination at work
  • Inadequate internet connection
  • Changing job requirements, and
  • Household financial pressures.

Managers and colleagues can positively impact the mental health of vulnerable workers

The good news is that across the board, many vulnerable workers reported that their managers and colleagues had a positive impact on their mental health. Managers were particularly supportive of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Australians with the majority (53.3%) of those workers reporting their manager improved their mental health.

Vulnerable workers reported that colleagues had an even wider positive impact on their mental health than managers. This was particularly true for workers with a mental, physical, or other health condition, Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Australians, and workers aged 18 – 24.

Graph showing the impact of workplace on mental health condition

Table – Percentage of those who report their manager and colleagues either improved or worsened their mental health

Supporting vulnerable workers is all about recognition, autonomy and fairness

It’s great to see that managers and colleagues can have such a positive impact on vulnerable workers, but what exactly are they doing? Here’s what vulnerable workers said made them feel valued and it’s all about recognising them for good work, giving them autonomy, and showing empathy and fairness.

Respect me and my opinions.”

Show appreciation.”

Respect everyone and be fair to everyone, not make different rules for different people.”

Just respect me and be nicer to me.”

Trust me to do the job because of my experience and knowledge.”

Encourage me and help me when I ask.”

Allow me to do what I am good at.”

Make me [feel] included.”

Acknowledge and reward my extra efforts and strengths.”

Be interested in me and understand my situation.”

Appreciate [people’s work] and have a high understanding when applying empathy and sympathy to a certain area, to ensure they aren’t judging an employee’s situation.”

Treat me fairly and understand my autoimmune disease does not stop me being a good employee.”

What you can do

The good news is that across the board, many vulnerable workers reported that their managers and colleagues had a positive impact on their mental health. Managers were particularly supportive of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Australians with the majority (53.3%) of those workers reporting their manager improved their mental health.

1.

Train leaders and managers

Creating a culture of psychological safely where workers feel they can raise concerns and be supported is vital. Equipping leaders with the knowledge to recognise workplace risk and protective factors, and giving them the skills and confidence to have care conversations with their team, is an important first step in creating psychological safety for all workers.

Check out SuperFriend’s course for leaders.

Workplace Mental Health Essentials for Leaders: SuperFriend

Watch Amy Edmondson’s TED Talk on Building a psychologically safe workplace.

Building a psychologically safe workplace: TED

2.

Build policies that protect all workers

Policies play a really important role in making sure vulnerable workers have a safe and supportive workplace. Review the policies you already have to check that vulnerable worker groups are protected from things like discrimination.

If you’re not sure if your policies cover everything they need to, consider SuperFriend’s Workplace Wellbeing Audit:

Workplace Wellbeing Audit: SuperFriend

3.

Build connections

It’s important to ensure that vulnerable workers feel connected with the rest of the team and are recognised for their efforts. Create an inclusive, connected environment to help protect vulnerable workers from psychosocial risk factors that can impact mental health.

Read Mark Leopold’s article on compassion, community and connection.

Compassion, Community and Connection: SuperFriend

Check out the resources on SuperFriend’s connection hub.

Connection: SuperFriend

Read more about how to recognise and reward workers.

Work-related stress – low recognition and reward: WorkSafe

Read SuperFriend’s blog on diversity and inclusion.

Ensure your organisation is inclusive, fair and representative of the real world: SuperFriend

4.

Upskill staff

Providing foundational mental health and wellbeing training to staff is a great way to empower workers with the skills and knowledge to support the mental health of themselves and others. Check out SuperFriend’s free resources and training course below:

Looking After You: SuperFriend
Peer Support Booklet: SuperFriend
Workplace Mental Health Essentials For All Staff Course: SuperFriend

Just like physical health is linked to mental health, so too is financial wellbeing linked to psychological wellbeing. Providing regular financial education sessions to staff is beneficial not just for workers who are under financial strain, but for all employees as part of their journey to wellbeing. Many superannuation funds offer financial education sessions to their member organisations, so reach out to your superannuation fund to learn more.

5.

The bigger picture

SuperFriend advocates at the policy level to ensure all Australians are mentally healthy and thriving at work, including vulnerable workers or people who are not currently well protected by current employment legislation (such as gig workers).

You can read more about SuperFriend’s advocacy work here.

Advocacy: SuperFriend