Bullying and Harassment in the Health Sector

Tabled: 23 March 2016

Auditor-General's comments



Dr Peter Frost

Acting Auditor-General

Audit team

Michael Herbert—Engagement Leader

Mandy Charman—Team Leader

Melinda Gambrell—Senior Analyst

Kim Westcott—Analyst

Engagement Quality Control Reviewer

Dallas Mischkulnig

This audit highlights the importance of building and maintaining a positive workplace culture that effectively and decisively deals with the full range of inappropriate behaviours, including bullying and harassment. Unfortunately this is a subject that my office has had very public experience with and I know that dedication to dealing with the underlying behavioural problems of an organisation is key to preventing these types of incidents.

This audit, the third in a series focusing on occupational health and safety (OHS) in the health sector, examined whether public health services and Ambulance Victoria (AV) are effectively managing the risk of bullying and harassment in the workplace.

I found that health sector agencies are failing to respond effectively to bullying and harassment as a serious OHS risk. They are not demonstrating adequate leadership on these issues, which is illustrated by the fact that the audited agencies do not understand the extent, causes or impact of bullying and harassment in their respective organisations, even when such issues have resulted in significant media attention and reputational damage.

Audited agencies also do not have the fundamental, underpinning foundations of effective policies and procedures, and do not adequately train their staff and managers to deal with inappropriate behaviours to prevent them escalating into serious bullying and harassment.

And when issues become serious bullying and harassment matters these agencies do not have the appropriate procedures to manage them or document the details to help inform future planning and action.

The audit also examined the roles of the Department of Health & Human Services (DHHS), WorkSafe and the Victorian Public Sector Commission (VPSC), in providing sector-wide leadership, support and guidance.

As in my previous OHS audits, we found consistent shortcomings. Stronger leadership and support is urgently needed to assist health sector agencies to fulfil their responsibilities as employers, and to effectively protect their staff.

The impact of poor OHS is felt not only by the affected staff, but also by the patients they are treating. Health sector organisations with strong staff safety cultures have fewer patient safety incidents, and the incidents that do occur are of shorter duration. Stronger management of bullying and harassment would benefit patients as well as staff. And, while my 2016 audit Patient Safety in Victorian Public Hospitals tabled today shows there have been improvements in patient safety at the hospital level, it also found that sector-wide leadership by DHHS has again been ineffective.

Throughout this audit I have been encouraged by the engagement and response of the audited agencies. They have genuinely engaged with and reflected upon the seriousness of this issue and demonstrated an openness to tackling it more effectively. This audit provides direction for operational improvements to manage bullying and harassment but, more fundamentally, it is a call for a more strategic, proactive sector-wide approach that better reflects community expectations about worker safety, new knowledge and evidence about what works.

The audit made 12 recommendations to health sector agencies that focused on improving governance and leadership, and implementing a comprehensive approach which is supported by improved capability and ensures an effective formal response system is in place. The audit also made several recommendations to DHHS, WorkSafe and the VPSC focused on improving collaboration and support to the health sector to better address this risk.

In summary, greater leadership and sustained commitment is required from health sector leaders to build and maintain a positive culture through effectively responding to inappropriate behaviour including bullying and harassment.

I note the recent launch of the Australian Medical Association Victoria's strategy to address widespread bullying, discrimination and harassment in Victoria's health system. This is a step in the right direction.

Signature of Dr Peter Frost (Acting Auditor-General)

Dr Peter Frost

Acting Auditor-General

March 2015

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