Those who advocate the winding back of workplace organisation by unions should take a good hard look at what has happened in nursing. Given the mangerialism of the health system bureaucracy and the conservatism of the union bureaucracy, the balance of power in the workplace has swung in favour of management, and health system workers are left feeling unprotected in the face of management by inexperienced managers who I believe resort to intimidation and harassment because they do not have the training, knowledge, skill, experience or maturity as managers to deal with the complexities of health system management. A well organised branch at workforce level can do much to counter the effect of overbearing management if the branch officers are trained in the processes of natural justice and procedural fairness and supported by an active and diligent Head Office Industrial Team. Where there is an effective balance of power between union and management, fairness can prevail, and workers can feel protected. Where these elements are missing, workers work in a fear culture,
Scared nurses' secret evidence of intimidation
Natasha Wallace Health Reporter, smh
June 5, 2008
THE bullying of nurses by hospital management is so rife that about a third who gave evidence at the State Government's inquiry into hospitals chose to do so in secret, fearing retribution if they publicly revealed their stories.
Some nurses were too afraid even to be seen seated at the Special Commission of Inquiry into Acute Care Services in NSW Public Hospitals, said Bob Whyburn, a lawyer employed by the NSW Nurses Association support nurses who gave evidence.
The nurses union was so concerned about nurses refusing to come forward due to fears of intimidation by management that it employed Mr Whyburn to attend every one of the 34 sitting days.
"Roughly a third gave evidence in closed session and it's likely that a lot of them did because of fear of retribution, because that was expressed by the others in open hearings," Mr Whyburn told the Herald.
"In some hospitals we went to the nurses were so concerned about what might occur if they did give evidence that they didn't even come along and listen to any evidence that was given. They were frightened to be even seen near the commission."
Mr Whyburn said at one hearing at Westmead Hospital, three senior managers reserved the front row and stared down witnesses during their evidence.
"The three of them stayed there all day and scowled."
Marguerite Cullen, who has been a nursing unit manager for almost 30 years, told the inquiry at Westmead on April 10 that nurses who spoke up inevitably experienced "payback". Some nurses cried because of the way they were treated by managers and felt "totally demoralised", she told the inquiry. She also told the inquiry some nurses were too afraid to attend.
"They said, 'It's not worth my job. It's not worth it. The repercussions if I went down there would be too much,"' she said. "They are too intimidated. I find that quite distressing."
Besides bullying and poor morale, nurses complained of poor workplace conditions - heavy workloads, double shifts and wards staffed by too many junior nurses. Some cried while giving evidence.
They also complained about a lack of consultation when NSW Health issued directives that affected their work practices.
The Nurses Association's submission to the inquiry reported widespread frustration and fatigue. Nurses described their hospitals like a "war zone" or being "in the trenches".
"When people become nurses they know it is hard work … but they don't know it is unsafe, that you don't get a break and you are not supported," one nurse said. "Some shifts feel out of control."
The submission recommended an overhaul of policies to prevent and resolve bullying and harassment, saying NSW Health had failed to address a "culture of fear and intimidation embedded throughout the public health sector".
The Minister for Health, Reba Meagher, has been forced in Parliament to defend the Health Department's response to bullying, particularly at Royal North Shore Hospital.
A study conducted by the University of Sydney on behalf of unions for the inquiry showed that 60 per cent of nurses said they were exhausted at work and, within the previous 12 months, 60 per cent had seriously considered leaving.
The inquiry has concluded and the commissioner, Peter Garling, SC, is due give his recommendations by July 31.