15 Nov 2019

Nurses say bullying was rife at Middlemore neonatal unit

3:49 pm on 15 November 2019

Nurses have come forward backing up complaints of bullying within neonatal wards at Counties Manakau District Health Board.

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RNZ this week reported investigations into bullying at Middlemore Hospital's neonatal unit had found a small handful of managers at fault for bullying or mismanaging the nurses caring for the babies and mothers.

At the unit there was a lack of support for staff after babies died, a lack of training, namecalling, and nurses' concerns - even around safety - being dismissed, the documents said. Counties Manukau DHB introduced an oversight group at the neonatal unit, it said.

A woman who worked as a casual staff member at the neonatal unit several years ago said that when she was offered a permanent job, she turned it down.

"I declined it because I experienced an almost total lack of help and support when working in the very specialised and busy unit," she in an email to RNZ.

"I saw how stressed the permanent staff were along with the inflexible rostering and witnessed the bullying culture of the unit which sometimes included the parents of the babies as well, and it upset me a lot."

A nurses' group on social media has been flooded with responses, some referring to a particular manager.

"I too suffered daily for two and a half years under the regime of this bully until I walked out one Friday never to return," one nurse wrote.

"My self esteem and self-worth plummeted and I had no confidence in myself and my capabilities which I had never had before. I struggled to find employment .... and when asked at interviews why I had left my job I would break down. My depression got worse and I was broken."

Another nurse from the unit said many tried but failed over the years to stop the bullying.

"So many tried to make a stand against it but were met with resistance from above."

That was echoed by another nurse.

"It went on too long and was allowed by too many .. people who knew there were problems and could have acted but didn't. Too many lives affected."

Another expressed surprise the story was only breaking now when she estimated 46 nurses left between 2010 and 2012.

RNZ has also had feedback that the working environment has improved at the Counties Manakau neonatal unit.

Counties Manakau DHB said since 2017 they had employed 36 full time staff - 24 junior and 6 senior nurses - most since its first bullying investigation finished last year.

A former nurse at Waikato DHB has also said she experierenced bullying, and believes she lost her job for speaking out.

The nurse, Nicola, said her manager brushed off complaints for over a year.

"She would sit you down and have a chat and then go 'oh well' and send you an email a couple of days later going 'thank you for taking the time to meet with me' and that was it... nothing would happen."

In September, she told an member of the Professional Development and Recognition Programme unit what was happening.

"I told her everything that was going on... she referred all my concerns to HR. As soon as HR got involved I knew I wasn't going to have a job any more because they knew my manager hadn't done anything."

After 13 months her contract was not renewed, she said.

She said she was often verbally abused and came home most days crying.

"This affected me so bad, I was having suicidal thoughts... I was an emotional wreck."

"I've been put on anti-depressants since then."

Waikato DHB Human Resources director Gil Sewell said the DHB did not comment on personal information, due to privacy reasons, but it took bullying and bullying allegations seriously.

"The experience our employees have at work is extremely important to us," Ms Sewell said in a statement.

The statement said the DHB had interventions and initiatives in place, including values to guide behaviour at work, trained teams to help provide support for anyone with has concerns about inappropriate behaviour including bullying, and a Speaking Up for Safety Programme.

"We know that it is important to make a distinction between managing performance and bullying - they are not the same thing."