Cultural Load – Is It Time To Evaluate The Load And Who Is Bearing It?

The term ‘Cultural Load’ was brought to my attention by an article in HRM (July 2021) in reference to the “extra pressure” employers are (often unknowingly) placing “on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees by asking them to educate their colleagues”.

Associate Professor Richard Frankland, Head of the Wilin Centre for Indigenous Arts and Cultural Development at the University of Melbourne, defines ‘Cultural Load’ asthe invisible loads that people of other cultures or other social demographics carry…. and – following on from this – ‘cultural safety’ means being able to practise your culture free of ridicule or condemnation”.

If I narrow the focus down to the workplace and broaden the lens on what ‘cultural load’ may mean, then a variety of employees may be experiencing extra pressures and extra workloads in addition to the requirements of their substantive role.

With workplaces focusing more on improving diversity and inclusion (D&I), it makes sense to seek input from current employees who have already openly identified as having an attribute which positions them in a minority group. These employees who are keen to see cultural change for greater understanding, inclusion and the development of cultural safety will usually willingly volunteer to attend meetings, provide opinion, contribute to policy formation, and agree to participate in the education of their colleagues (i.e. speak at workshops and functions etc).

Unfortunately, these employees now are required to carry extra pressures that are not placed upon nor expected of other employees. They attend to their substantive tasks (usually without any formally agreed reduction or alteration to their roles) while attending to these extra D&I tasks as well as having in the past and continuing to shoulder the pressures or not having free and easy access to their culture within the broader workplace culture.

Any change process creates a load on those involved in developing the change and contributing to its early implementation process.

Many managers fail to identify that when staff are involved in any change process (cultural, IT, administration processes etc), they carry a load:

  • This can be self imposed with the staff member wanting to perform well and ensure the change process is successful;
  • It can be imposed by colleagues who are resistant to the change and target their frustrations at the change champion;
  • It can be imposed by colleagues who are willing to accept the change but need greater support/training/encouragement to acquire the skills and/or confidence to apply the change;
  • Imposed by managers who do not provide adequate time release from substantive roles; and/or
  • Imposed by managers who do not provide adequate training for the change champion. This training should not be limited to supporting the change champion to be able to explain the process and train others but additional training should be offered to develop a range of other skills. Not usually considered is the need for the change champion to have a high level of resilience and the skills to manage their own well being. These change champions would also personally benefit and the business would benefit by the change champion being able to develop skills in counselling, coaching and conflict management to reduce the stress associated with introducing change to others. Typically it is understood that staff being asked to implement change will experience stress. But it is not usually considered that the change champion will also experience stress from their interactions with the stressed staff members. Improving a range of skills for the change champion should assist in such interactions being less stressful for everyone.

Given that cultural safety, workload stress and physiological stress can all be identifiable hazards and an organisation has a duty to remove or minimise any hazard which can be detrimental to a worker’s health and safety, the organisation has a duty to place the spotlight on cultural load and implement all reasonably practical measures to reduce the load and any negative impact which could be attributed to such a load.

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About the Author

Catherine Gillespie brings a wealth of skill to her clients. With particular expertise in teaching communication and workplace conflict resolution skills, Catherine has made a marked difference to the organisations she has worked with. She empowers teams and managers to adopt constructive styles that support harmony, productivity and progress in the workplace.