The global pandemic highlighted issues surrounding psychosocial safety and risk in the workplace, providing organisations with a chance to reflect on how the work environment impacts how people feel about coming to work.

UNSW Business School’s commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in education, employment, and research is one way the faculty is prioritising the health and wellbeing of staff and students.

Associate Professor Elvira Sojli, Associate Dean Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, at UNSW Business School says this approach aligns with the Business School’s overall vision of an inclusive community that supports diversity of thought, culture, gender and experiences for both staff and students.

“We acknowledge and support the diverse lived experience of our community. This includes diversity of gender, socio-economic status, cultural background, race, sexual orientation, disability, age and religion,” she says. “Everyone brings perspectives which enrich us and contribute to our success.”

To create a healthy, flourishing Business School community in which people find genuine fulfilment when coming to work or study, Professor Sojli says it's crucial for people to feel safe and supported.

An organisational commitment to wellbeing

This idea of safety aligns with Professor Frederik Anseel’s, Interim Dean at UNSW Business School, own research that explores how organisations can meaningfully affect how mentally healthy their people feel.

“A lot of organisations have organised things like individual resilience training, mindfulness training, yoga and other wellbeing opportunities. These aim to give the individual all sorts of tips and tricks, on how to be more productive, how to have work-life balance and make sure that they manage their own life in a good way. These tips and tricks are helpful and can help people deal with work challenges,but there is a risk that they seem to put the responsibility on the individual,” Professor Anseel says.

“My research perspective is often looking more at what happens in the broader work environment. Acknowledging that some of these psychosocial safety problems are not necessarily an individual problem, but a characteristic feature of the work environment.”

Professor Anseel explores the impact of not just the work people do, but how different workplaces are structured in terms of expectations and support.

“I specifically focus on how work is organised; how the job demands people have, the leadership they receive, the broader relationships people have with other colleagues, and how what they’re doing now will affect career progression. There is a lot at play with regards to how mentally safe people feel at work.”

He adds that respectful and authentic leadership, where openness and feedback is encouraged, is a key factor in achieving a mentally safe workplace. There are no quick fixes.

“You can give people a behavioural repertoire to work with, but that leads to misunderstandings where people think that’s all you need to do – here's a recipe and it will work every time. It doesn't work like that.”

In response to this, UNSW Business School has developed a wellbeing calendar of events that aims to bring our colleagues together and increase our awareness and appreciation of our differences, as well as the importance of being mindful in such a diverse community.

“My favourite was the first event on A Guided Bush Food Chocolate Mindfulness Meditation. Fiona Harrison, Founder & CEO of Chocolate on Purpose, a Wiradyuri Woman of the Belubula and Macquarie Rivers, provided faculty members with a guided meditation taking us from (Aboriginal) Country-to-Country sampling her beautiful chocolates from the different nations that make up Australia, building on our deep relationships with our Indigenous communities,” Associate Professor Sojli says.

Other events include celebrating International Women’s Day with an opportunity to network and celebrate colleagues who are making strides in their area of research and expertise as gender champions, as well as offering engaging presentations on “What can we learn from the longest study of happiness” present by Duncan Young, a Wellbeing habit change leader and executive coach.

Developing a community where EDI is expected and respected

This perspective also resonates with Associate Professor Sojli and the EDI team at the Business School, who agree that mental health and wellbeing issues cannot be systematically addressed by organising single wellness initiatives.

That is why they aim to create an atmosphere and cultivate a mindset where EDI principles seamlessly integrate into everyday lives and habits. The idea is that people feel accepted, supported and able to do what they want to do within the faculty no matter their background.

“Our initiatives are small, organised steps to provide the starting blocks in our journey in building a mentally healthy workplace. We want these activities to not only help with wellbeing but enrich our staff and students culturally and spiritually by being able to take home learnings they can use every day.”

For students, that includes developing Classroom Inclusivity Guidelines that leverage diverse content (produced by diverse writers or covering diverse subjects), enable accessibility, use inclusive language and promote social justice. And in their commitment to breaking down barriers that may prevent interaction with or access to websites and digital learning materials, the Business School developed Digital Accessibility Guides for Learning, which now set the standard for digitised content across the entire university. 

“For our staff, one example is our investment in the development of our female-identifying academics through the Academic Women Career Advancement Program (AWCAP) and Achieve, as well as financial support through our Career Reinitialising Support fund when returning from extended carer leave,” Associate Professor Sojli says.

“All too often societal pressures and biases get in the way of our female colleagues’ goals. Although we’d all like academia to be a true meritocracy, ample research shows that implicit biases create significant hurdles to achieving diversity in our communities. These interventions aim to provide our female-identifying colleagues with the best tools to support them in achieving their career goals.”

UNSW Business School has long provided staff with flexible working arrangements. There are also weekly opportunities for staff and students to connect through sports, and staff have been able to access Lifestyle Clinic consultations at the UNSW Exercise Physiology Clinic.

Embedding values on campus for a stronger, safer community

Leading by example, Associate Professor Sojli hopes people will take what they’ve experienced as faculty members into their daily lives and other networks.

“We’re committed to providing outstanding support and development opportunities for all who work and study at UNSW Business School, and promote these values in external interactions,” she says.

“By embedding EDI values on campus, we are doing our part to help students and staff reflect these principles off campus as well. These are universal principles that can only contribute to a stronger community.”

And by recognising and acknowledging the influence the faculty’s broader environment can have on people’s mental and physical health and the important role it plays, the Business School is taking deliberate steps to make greater social impact, beyond what is taught in the classroom.