Caring workspaces for human rights

Source: Pixabay / Mohamed Hassan

The Covid-19 pandemic brought a new urgency to understanding care for our well-being as a fundamental part of our workspaces. This is an important call to action both because there are many problems that need addressing within workspaces and because our expertise as social change workers and activists is necessary to mainstream care into all workspaces.

The Caring Workspaces project was born out of these observations. It was developed as a pilot project to promote inclusive, diverse, and caring practices in civil society and the social enterprise sectors. The big lesson that this work has taught us is that, as agents of social change, we need to talk about our core values within our organisations just as much as we do externally in  working to change the world.

The caring approach we adopt in this project recognizes the unequal division of caregiving and receiving roles created as a result of binary systems of gender. As such, a workspace can be defined as caring if it aims to be physically inclusive; ensure its employees’ care needs, working conditions, and rights; develop policies and programs for their well-being; and maintain equal and participatory decision-making at all levels.

Covid-19 impacts on human rights defenders’ working conditions

The working conditions for human rights defenders and civil society professionals were  an issue long before the Covid-19 pandemic. Those in the non-profit sector have always had difficulty talking about their social rights, mental health, and well-being in the workplace, despite being exposed to significant stress and precarious working conditions. In a study conducted by the University of York in 2017, 86 percent of at-risk human rights defenders expressed they were “somewhat” or “very” concerned about their mental health. Another global study revealed that human rights organizations are frequently incapable of responding to employee well-being.

These vulnerabilities were further exacerbated by the pandemic, which created a lot of tension between people’s care responsibilities in their private domains and in their work life. According to studies conducted by the RESISTIRÉ project, the closure of many care facilities and the requirement to stay at home had a significant impact on people who have caring responsibilities for children, the elderly, the disabled, or others. 

Women suffered the consequences of the increase in unpaid care work at home and the decrease in employment, which widened the gender gap in pay, employment, and care responsibilities. While there were some policies that produced rapid solutions to changing pandemic conditions, gender inequality was overshadowed; women and LGBTI+ people were unable to participate in decision-making mechanisms and thus their problems were ignored

Inclusive, diverse, and caring workspaces

The Caring Workspaces project is about co-creating the “better story” of a caring workspace that promotes inclusiveness, diversity, safety, and care for employees at all levels. It is informed by a gender+ approach, recognising intersections of gender with age, race/ethnicity, class, disability, and sexuality as likely to be particularly significant in the analysis of the impact that policy responses to Covid-19 have on inequalities.

It is in this context that two organizations—Postane and Hafıza Merkezi—have joined forces to create an agenda for more inclusive, diverse, and caring workspaces. Postane is an urban hub in Istanbul that hosts social, environmental, and urban impact-oriented communities and collaborative cultural productions. Hafıza Merkezi (or Truth Justice Memory Center in English) is a human rights organization based in Turkey which also provides sub-grants and capacity building support to rights-based NGOs. 

In 2017, 86 percent of at-risk human rights defenders expressed they were “somewhat” or “very” concerned about their mental health.

So, how exactly can we say if a workspace is inclusive and care-based? To answer this question, we suggest a framework in which a caring workspace has five fundamental qualities.

First, a spatial quality: Is the workspace physically inclusive, diverse, safe, accessible, and participatory? Second, a policy angle: Are there policies in place to provide for the social, economical, mental, and physical well-being of workers? Third, related to the policy angle: Are there programs and mechanisms in place to ensure that the caring approach is implemented? Fourth, a community aspect: Are there spaces for collective discussion and reflection, and are community and governance processes diverse, inclusive, and participatory? And finally, beyond the workplace: Does the workspace care about its social impact, external relations, and communication?

The spatial qualities take into consideration the physical needs of everyone who uses it, ensuring both physical things like occupational safety as well as the participation of employees in the design process. A caring workspace also has policies in place that guarantee respectable employee wages, benefits, working hours, mental and physical health, and well-being. Mainstreaming a gender+ perspective, it develops practices that take into account the needs and rights of women and LGBTI+ employees, like offering menstrual or hormone therapy leaves. It develops programs that support the well-being of the employees, creating opportunities for employees to express their views and demands. Key management positions have an inclusive and diverse perspective, and these principles are taken into account in community-building. Finally, a caring workplace has responsibilities not only to its own organization and employees but also beyond the workspace, to its partners, beneficiaries, and target groups. 

The Caring Workspaces project 

Clearly, organizations have different material capacities to realize these goals. The idea we’re trying to raise here, however, is not a material one. It’s about changing a mindset. Transforming our workspaces is only possible if we reconsider our priorities. 

To this end, as part of the project we: i) carried out research (currently only available in Turkish) into organizations and organizational practices in Turkey and Europe which can serve as good examples for caring workspaces; ii) developed a checklist for organizations’ self-assessment; and iii) are facilitating a campaign that puts the good practices to a vote and awards them for visibility and encouragement. By the end of the project, we will give a Caring Workspaces Award to an organization that receives the highest votes from our community.

As the project is a pilot study of RESISTIRÉ, a Europe-wide consortium for developing policy proposals to tackle gender-based inequalities created by the Covid-19 pandemic, organizations eligible to nominate others for the award must be established in EU Member States, in the UK, Serbia, Iceland, or Turkey, as this is the scope of the RESISTIRÉ project. 

In closing

Through this project, we built an agenda for change from within, putting care at the center of our workspaces. We grounded this agenda at the intersection of care and gender but also went beyond it to include dimensions of well-being, community, diversity, and inclusion. Pursuing this agenda as a public discussion has been valuable, as issues related to our workspaces are typically delegated exclusively to managers, administrators, or human resource departments. In contrast to this common perception, we wanted to show that a caring focus in our workspaces has many cross-cutting dimensions and that it should no longer remain solely internal/organizational matters. This is key because the quality of our workspace determines not only the credibility of our cause but also its impact. 

A hopeful approach has been key for us in this project. That’s why we have put out a checklist for organizations to self-assess, collected “better stories” to inspire, and are giving an award to encourage and celebrate. And it is in this spirit of hope and solidarity that we encourage all of you as readers of Open Global Rights to share your stories of inspiring workspaces to nominate for the Caring Workspaces Award.