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Strength in diversity

Jess Widdop is tasked with making the most of NHW’s rich mix of people in its vast workforce.

Jess Widdop standing in front of the wall covered in photos honouring nurses through the years at NHW.
BRING ON VARIETY: Jess Widdop is NHW’s first Diversity and Inclusion Manager and aims for a collective approach to improve access and experience of diverse population groups.

As Wangaratta’s largest employer with around 1600 staff members, it is no surprise that the health service’s workforce is one of the most diverse in the Rural City.

To further coordinate and expand what was seen as a strength of the workforce, NHW employed Jess Widdop as the service’s first Diversity and Inclusion Manager.

“The role was created to bring together a range of diversity portfolios for a collective approach to improve access and experience of diverse population groups,” Jess said. 

“All of my roles since graduating (with a Bachelor of Public Health majoring in Health Promotion) have had a focus on diverse population groups but never all together, which is what drew me to this role. 

“I’ve worked in roles supporting refugee and migrant health literacy, developing connections with communities and health services, establishing LGBTQIA+ safe community events, engaging young people in decision making and many more. 

“I love working on systematic change that improves the experience of diverse populations.”

Jess said NHW has a diverse staff population with about 60 per cent female, 40 per cent male (at point of collection NHW could only collect female and male), with ages spanning the entire work life (and beyond). 

About 1.5 per cent of the workforce identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander. 

“While we do not have defined data, we know our workforce is culturally diverse, gender diverse and live with disability,” she said. 

Health services have generally led the way in broadening diversity of employees, which has changed dramatically since the hospital was first opened, according to Jess.

“When we think about health services, 150 years ago there would have been mostly male doctors, female nurses and not a lot of diversity,” she said.

“It was illegal to be ‘out’ as LGBTQIA+, people with disabilities were often ‘hidden’ from the general population and Aboriginal people were segregated. 

“We didn’t have a lot of multiculturalism back then either so we definitely would not have had the diverse staff we have now. 

“We now employ people from all backgrounds, races, sexualities, abilities and whatever individualism you can think of!”

The changes have particularly gathered pace in the last decade.

“I think the changes would reflect the community,” said Jess. 

“As a community, we are more accepting and celebrate diversity. 

“We have better legislation and are seeing community progress in embracing and celebrating diversity. 

“We’ve seen legislative changes to marriage equality, gender affirmation, gender equality and strengthening of older legislation such as the Discrimination Act and Disability Act.”

Despite the increase in diversity, Jess said there were still some areas with less diversity than others and there are still some gendered stereotypes in certain roles. 

There are lots of reasons for diversity (or lack thereof). Some of them are whether certain roles can be modified, whether a role can be filled via skilled migration, education level requirements, and many more,” she said.

“What we are trying to do is break down some of the barriers of employment for diverse people in all areas of Northeast Health Wangaratta. 

“I think we are seeing more of a consolidated effort in making NHW a more inclusive organisation.

“We’re providing support to more individuals and implementing new legislation. 

“We’ve just completed consultations for our new Disability Action Plan which we are really excited about.” 

Jess said of the main attractions and strengths of the workplace for her was the range of people and roles NHW offers. 

“You can be chatting with a heart specialist, a plumber, an accountant, a nurse, a HR specialist, an educator, a receptionist and a cleaner, all in the space of one day,” she said. 

“A diverse workforce has so many benefits – for the diverse staff, particularly those with disability, having meaningful work has a huge impact on self-worth and sense of belonging. 

“It also has a positive impact on everyone around diverse people; you learn, you listen and start to understand to an extent the need for different ways of doing things depending on individual needs.”  

Equally, it was also the people she works alongside who make Jess look forward to coming to work each day.

“The people who work solely on improving the experience of diverse staff have made a huge impression on me – their passion and commitment inspires me and others to do better in our respective roles,” said Jess. 

She said her biggest challenge was having the time to make the changes that are needed to be made in the diversity space. 

“We all know how we can do things better, but it takes time and people, which seem in high demand at the moment,” said Jess.

“For those wishing to join such a diverse workplace, and help us to continue to make improvements, NHW is a great option.”

Wangaratta Chronicle Wednesday 30 November 2022 – Article by Shane Douthie and photo by Karen Vincent.