The largest mental health facility in NSW has again been rocked by allegations a toxic culture of bullying has taken hold, leading to a mass exodus of staff who claim they were victims of “stifling, anxiety-provoking” management.
The Sydney Morning Herald has obtained documents that show Cumberland Hospital, managed by the Western Sydney Local Health District, has been hit with a series of penalty notices by the workplace safety regulator SafeWork NSW after five allied health staff resigned en masse last year.
The matter is before the NSW civil dispute’s tribunal and has led to calls by powerful Health Services Union secretary Gerard Hayes for an independent inquiry into the district.
The latest accusations come after the Herald previously revealed the same district is facing criminal charges over allegations it failed in its duty of care over two nurses who died while employed at Cumberland Hospital in 2020.
That case remains before the courts, but the Herald has revealed one of the nurses alleged she was the victim of sexual harassment and bullying before her death, and had described the final months of her life as like being “placed in a political meat grinder”.
The separate allegations raised by the five allied health workers have again raised questions about the culture inside the hospital, and the leadership of the health district. It comes as sources inside the hospital told the Herald conditions were so bad that one unit had effectively quit en masse and another has a 60 per cent attrition rate over the past two years.
Penalty notices issued by SafeWork in September state its investigation found the Western Sydney Local Health District “failed to manage the impact of work-related psychosocial stressors” on staff inside Cumberland Hospital despite numerous warnings that staff at the hospital were “distressed”.
Documents obtained by the Herald show in late 2022 the allied health staff compiled a list of 70 “grievance and bullying issues” and raised concerns about “burnout and unreasonable caseload”.
But SafeWork’s investigation found the district did not properly investigate the claims, and had “failed to adequately assess or eliminate” their concerns.
An internal investigation by the district had dismissed the complaints with “a lack of rationale”, it found, and did not even interview all staff who lodged complaints.
The latest intervention by the workplace health and safety regulator will raise further questions about the operation of one of the state’s largest health districts, and follows revelations staff increasingly fear for their safety amid spiralling emergency department wait times.
Last week the Herald revealed a nurse at Blacktown Hospital — part of the same local health district — was stabbed in the face with a pair of blunt scissors this month. Individual complaints from staff at Cumberland, obtained by the Herald, also claim the “extremely toxic culture” inside the hospital had spilt over to patient care.
Hayes, the secretary of the HSU, which made a formal complaint about the bullying in writing to Western Sydney Local Health District management on 11 November last year, called for the NSW government to conduct a review into the district.
“A highly concerning pattern has emerged at Western Sydney Local Health District. At a minimum NSW Health needs to appoint an independent expert to examine the safety of Cumberland Hospital for workers and assess its overall culture,” he said.
The Western Sydney Local Health District did not respond to a list of detailed questions about the SafeWork investigation or claims about a toxic culture inside the hospital.
In a statement, a spokeswoman said the district “takes all complaints seriously however we cannot comment on open SafeWork matters”.