NSW Ambulance has ‘huge problem’: bullying inquiry told

NSW Ambulance management knows “nothing about” 99 per cent of allegations of bullying in its ranks, and if or how the matters are resolved, a parliamentary inquiry into emergency services agencies has heard.

In a tense exchange at the end of the second day of hearings, deputy chair of the inquiry David Shoebridge grilled NSW Ambulance chief executive Dominic Morgan on the organisation’s policies, which encourage dealing with complaints at a local level.

The inquiry heard allegations such policies left workers fearful of retribution when raising instances of bullying, and also prevented the collection of accurate figures on the prevalence of bullying.

“Over the last six years there are about 100 bullying complaints that you have any data on and everything else is all black box to you,” Mr Shoebridge said.

“There are 99 per cent of bullying claims you know nothing about because you don’t capture any data, you don’t have any feedback … you have no idea at all.”

Mr Morgan defended the policies.

Dominic Morgan

Dominic Morgan

“And I would suggest to you that that is entirely consistent with the research that suggests these things should be resolved at the lowest possible level,” he said.

Mr Shoebridge shot back: “How do you know they’ve been resolved? You don’t know anything about them?

“If you don’t know anything about them, you have a huge problem; and you have a huge problem,” he said.

Mr Morgan acknowledged the issue of under reporting of bullying within the service, with a Public Service Commission survey naming the organisation as having the highest rates of bullying among the emergency services, but records indicating just 1 per cent of Ambulance Service staff complaints were referred to the organisation’s Professional Standards Unit.

“NSW Ambulance has rates of bullying that would not be considered acceptable to us or the broader community and we’re making inroads to address that,” he said.

“We’re on a big journey and a lot of work has been achieved in recent times and there is a long way to go.”

About 46 per cent of workers’ compensation claims within NSW Ambulance are the result of mental health issues, Australian Paramedics Association secretary Steve Pearce told the inquiry, which is examining emergency services agencies responses to bullying and harassment.

He said bullying was “flourishing” in the organisation, though the methods had become more subtle in recent years.

“Some managers are using performance management … and job selection as a means of selectively punishing those that displease them,” he said.

He said some managers ignored or misused policies designed to protect workers and turned a “blind eye” to reports of intimidatory behaviour.

Gerard Hayes

Gerard Hayes

Health Services Union president Gerard Hayes told the inquiry a lack of paramedics was adding to stress and workload in an already tense environment.

He talked of paramedics in rural areas working long shifts, then getting minimal sleep before being called out again.

“These are the things that are building intense pressure, intense fatigue but they are doing this because they are at least 1000 people short,” he said.

Steve McDowell, a former paramedic with post-traumatic stress disorder and the founder of support group No More Neglect, told the inquiry NSW Ambulance policies lead to the deliberate “obstruction” of complaints of bullying and harassment, to prevent them being escalated to the Professional Standards Unit, where formal documentation was required.

He said the number of bullying complaints reported by NSW Ambulance, which the inquiry heard was around 100 over the past six years, were merely the ones that could not be blocked at a local level.

“They are talking about the ones that have slipped through the cracks, they are talking about the ones that have not been obstructed,” he said.

He called for on-call, 24-hour independent trauma specialists to help paramedics deal with the stresses of the job.

Mr Morgan defended the Employee Assistance Program, which offered 24-hour counselling, as well as the service’s chaplaincy program which was expanding.