Burnt out, bullied and threatened: Why our health workers are in crisis

Sydney Morning Herald, 5 December 2023

Eight nurses and midwives have taken their lives in the past three years, the union says, while nearly 2000 NSW Health workers lodged compensation claims for psychological injuries over the past two years, new data reveals.

More than 33,500 NSW Health employees have also claimed they are burnt out, while 21,000 workers say they have witnessed bullying in the workplace.

Experts and unions warn that the data – drawn from documents obtained exclusively by the Herald under freedom of information laws and the state government’s recently released annual employee survey, People Matter – shows a workplace struggling with staff mental health concerns.

University of Sydney Associate Professor Anya Johnson, who has extensively researched NSW’s healthcare industry and the factors that facilitate wellbeing and performance at work, said COVID had “compounded” employee mental health concerns, but stress-related illnesses were already tracking upwards before 2020.

She said more needed to be invested in supporting and developing new nursing and medicine graduates to ensure career longevity, as well as investment in hospitals.

“We must think about how we design work inside the hospital so that people have sufficient time to recover [from their shifts],” she said.

“You cannot leave a hospital unmanned … but you must give people more breaks, allow them to recover, it’s emotional work, it’s not just cognitive work.”

NSW Health has 940 ongoing claims against it for psychological injuries sustained in the two years to September 2023, while 812 claims were finalised during that period. Additionally, almost 14,000 employees say they are aware of misconduct in the workplace.

The NSW Health employee survey, which had 81,815 respondents, found 16 per cent claimed to have experienced bullying, 12 per cent had experienced threats or physical harm, and 7 per cent had experienced sexual harassment. Nurses and midwives made up 33 per cent of respondents.

The data shows that Hunter New England Local Health District has the highest number of claims for psychological injuries for employees who work in hospitals (122), followed by the Health Reform Transitional Office and Northern NSW LHD (101), Health Share NSW (92), South Western Sydney LHD (87), Central Coast LHD (84), Western Sydney LHD (82) and Sydney LHD (74).

A psychological injury can be post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety or other stress-related illness.

NSW Nurses and Midwives Association general secretary Shaye Candish said the union was aware of at least six nurses and midwives who had taken their lives, in circumstances relating to their workplace, in the past 12 months. The union wants a thorough investigation into workplace culture within NSW Health.

“[We are] extremely concerned about the lack of regulator oversight and understanding of workplace suicides in NSW,” Candish said.

“All workers have an equal right to healthy, safe and respectful work, without discrimination and free from violence and aggression. However, nurses and midwives are facing significant threats to their physical and psychological health from role overload, occupational violence and bullying and harassment.”

An investigation by the Herald into the suicides of two nurses in late 2020 while employed by Cumberland Hospital also revealed a toxic culture of bullying. The deaths of the two nurses are in addition to the six the union has been made aware of in the past 12 months.

Cumberland Hospital is the largest mental health facility in NSW and falls within Western Sydney LHD, which has 28 open psychological injury claims, while 54 were finalised in the past two years.

Former midwife Karen Buckley opened up to the masthead about her PTSD diagnosis following a decades-long tenure with the Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District. She is suing NSW Health because she wants to see change. That LHD has 34 open and 39 finalised claims in the past two years.

The new data follows revelations by the Herald last Friday that Ambulance NSW employees are at crisis point, with one in 12 filing or finalising a claim for a psychological injury in the past two years, and paramedics claiming the “guilt of patients dying” because of an overburdened health system is making them sick.

Union delegates will meet Premier Chris Minns and Treasurer Daniel Mookhey on Friday in a bid to find a resolution to a protracted pay dispute that is threatening to collapse the NSW triple zero call system on New Year’s Eve.

Health Minister Ryan Park said the state government wanted to ensure safe staffing levels in emergency departments and had made permanent the positions of 1112 temporary nurses in its first eight months in power.

“We won’t undo 12 years of underinvestment in our health system overnight, but I can assure staff and the community that seismic structural reforms are under way to turn things around,” Park said.
Opposition health spokesman Matt Kean said Labor had promised that health would be its focus and these results since the election showed this had not been the case.