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SA Health 'moves bullies from unit to unit', workers allege

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SA Health moves alleged bullies around the organisation rather than investigating them, its recruitment processes are tarnished by conflicts of interest and employees have been “broken” by “unsustainable” workloads, mental health workers have told an internal review.

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An SA Health-commissioned review of the state’s adult community mental health service (ACMH) has uncovered a series of “very disturbing” allegations about the culture of the service.

Former deputy president of the SA Industrial Relations Commission Greg Stevens interviewed 149 ACMH workers for the report, finding a widespread view that managers “know who the bullies are alleged to be, but have not taken any steps to reign (sic) them in”.

The strongest action taken when allegations were raised – many believed – was to move senior staff from unit to unit. The report says it was a common belief of staff that: “The most SA Health has ever done in respect of these issues is to move or second the employee(s) concerned to another position in either ACMH or elsewhere within SA Health.”

Staff also expressed concern that: “At most they [management staff] are not only failing to live up to their obligations under the policy, but also their legal obligations under the Work Health and Safety Act.”

One in 10 staff members interviewed for the review raised allegations of bullying, harassment, intimidation and other disrespectful behaviours – but none of them were willing to make any formal allegation about the behaviour because of a pervasive “mistrust” of SA Health processes.

“The situation … paints a very disturbing picture,” Stevens’ report says.

“That the formal allegation process is regarded with so much suspicion and mistrust that it is not being utilised is of great concern.

“To put it bluntly it means, if true, that there are ACMH employees who should have been investigated, and had findings made about their behaviour, who are free to continue with those behaviours.”

Stevens writes that: “Incidents that occurred a few years ago, or even longer, were recalled as if they had recently happened.”

“Quite clearly, those staff are still hurting, and particularly so where no acceptable resolution or closure had occurred, which was usually the case.”

SA Health deputy chief executive Don Frater told InDaily the department was working through the allegations raised and would take “immediate action” if they were substantiated.

“The report by Mr Stevens raises a number of system and workforce matters that require further investigation and that’s exactly what we are doing,” Frater said in a statement.

“We take every allegation of staff bullying other staff very seriously and we are working through the matters raised to determine if action is required.

“If any of these allegations are substantiated we will take immediate and appropriate action.”

The report says that while the majority of the workers interviewed had never endured bullying or harassment at ACMH, many had “suffered the collateral effect of knowing colleagues treated in this way”.

“Others, who are still working in the system, have been ‘broken down’ by the relentless pressure of unsustainable and uncapped workloads, and of poor treatment by certain managers past and present,” the report says.

Staff interviewed for the review also claimed there was a culture of nepotism in the selection of new employees for the service.

“It was alleged that persons who had relationships and/or friendships sat, sometimes together, on selection panels – which then produced what could be seen as inappropriate appointments,” the report says.

“In other words, they were alleged to have conflicts of interest that should have precluded them from such involvement.

“There was another selection panel where it was alleged that two members of the panel had endeavoured to coerce the third member of the panel into agreeing with their scoring of the applicants.”

The most consistently raised theme of the interviews, Stevens’ report says, was an “unsustainable” workload.

“Unlike bed based services [such as hospitals] where there are limits placed on the occupancy levels, community services appear to have no such limits, no waiting lists, and a lack of clarity as to who can be accepted as a consumer,” the report says.

“There were never enough hours in the day to complete tasks [and …] many staff worked for additional hours in their own time.

“Overtime or time in lieu was rarely applied for, and even more rarely, granted.”

The report says two main groups of employees were suffering “burn-out” at the service.

Frequently older staff, with 25 years’ experience or more, had taken what was described as  “early retirement”, in the past five years, despite the “prospect of another 10 to 15 years of further employment at ACMH”.

“Many of them did not believe they would “last the distance” unless conditions improved,” the report says.

The second group was younger workers with five years’ experience or less, many of whom “reported they experienced disrespectful behaviours from their managers” and believed they would be in “firing line” if they raised concerns.

Frater said SA Health was “looking closely at the HR process issues outlined in the report and will take action where necessary”.

The review was commissioned in response to the findings of a report by senior mental health nurse Jocelyn Douglass. InDaily has asked SA Health for the report.

SA branch CEO of the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation Elizabeth Dabars told InDaily workers had threatened industrial action – which would have begun today – if SA Health failed to release Stevens’ report. The Public Service Association has also been lobbying the department for the report’s release.

Dabars said she was concerned by claims that the department had not appropriately dealt with allegations of bullying and intimidation.

She said some employees in the services had moved to “doing part time work or [left the service] completely” as a result of their experiences with bullying.

A series of workshops for all managers and staff, concerning workloads, staff wellbeing and the management of bullying and harassment claims will begin next month, in order to address the issues raised in Stevens’ report.

Dabars added that she believed the workshops were an “appropriate” response to the Stevens’ report – which you can read in full here.

InDaily contacted the Public Service Association for comment.

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