A bullying and toxic work environment causing resignations and staff feeling threatened needs urgent change, a review into the Christchurch Anaesthetic Technician (AT) workforce says.
The damning review found the service needed a cultural and systemic overhaul of its leadership, employee well-being, policies and processes – which Te Whatu Ora Canterbury says is underway with the help of staff working groups.
It comes as 21 ATs left the anesthesia service in Canterbury in the past 12 months and 75% of new graduate staff resigned within six months of graduating.
Anaesthetic technicians assist anesthetists during operations, and prepare operating theaters and clinics for anesthetic procedures.
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A summary of staff feedback seen by Stuff says staff “overwhelmingly” found the leadership and management mostly unsupportive.
“Many of the issues that the service needs to resolve stem from the current leadership of the anesthetic technician team.”
Staff reported that management were biased towards certain staff members, could be threatening to staff and showed a lack of care for staff.
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“If management is challenged or disagreed with, staff feel that this causes poor treatment of the staff member who was courageous enough to speak up. Management have created a culture that is noticeably hostile and negative towards new people and the work environment has a poor reputation locally, nationally and internationally, and the toxic culture continues to cause resignations,” it says.
The bullying allegations included threats made to take staff off usual work allocations if they challenge management.
“Staff are crying in the toilets and break rooms because of what’s happening, it’s affecting people mentally and physically. Staff leave because of how bad the current environment is…[They] get shot down with intimidating behavior and workplace bullying,” it says.
The second-largest topic in the feedback was about rostering and lack of flexibility with some staff given preferential treatment.
“With more and more staff feeling unhappy about the department and its inflexibility in rostering, staff are leaving. This creates more gaps in the roster which need to be filled, this is often covered by overtime. While there is the monetary incentive in doing overtime, there is risk of burnout and exhaustion.”
Only specific people are allocated some work with little ability for other staff to grow and develop, no performance reviews undertaken for years and only feedback ever given by management is criticism.
The summary had 16 solutions for discussion including a new structure. A separate survey and report was done on the staff rostering.
An internal Anaesthetic Technicians Workforce Development Review found that while the ATs enjoyed and took pride in their work, they reported an emotional burden due to the unrest within the service.
“Employees depicted the environment as divided and dominated by some staff using the power and authority of their role in a negative way,” it said.
The staff identified some leaders and staff as the main perpetrators.
“This requires prompt attention to help repair and rebuild the current service…Employees are expecting commitment to taking action on these issues by making clear and tangible changes.”
It said there were currently 53 ATs and 48 had been interviewed by the reviewer.
It said most employees who had been there for a while said the issues were not new and were compounded by an imbedded culture, severe short staffing and expansion of the service into the new Waipapa building. It made 13 recommendations.
A staff member who did not want to be named said technicians were overworked.
They said leave requests were declined and rostering was unfair and unworkable, except for the favored few.
Technicians were being denied the chance to progress their careers because management favored team leaders for merit steps and trainee technicians were not being adequately supported.
They said it came down to bullying where staff were being left without meal breaks, or crying.
“The emotional and mental strain of the technicians is at breaking point, which will result in further breakdown and impact not only those staff, but the patients and hospital. This has been happening for years, and despite the investigations done internally there appears to be no change.”
Te Whatu Ora Canterbury’s chief people officer Jo Domigan said ATs worked hard and were dedicated to doing hugely valuable work essential to surgical services.
She said the service currently had 26 AT vacancies partly due to shortages nationally and pay discussions were continuing with unions.
“However, we also acknowledge that there have been significant workforce and culture issues that have affected our AT team. We take this very seriously and addressing these issues has been a priority for us in the last twelve months,” she said.
She said since the survey results in 2021, there had been a number of meetings with the AT team to address issues and develop solutions.
“We have started a program of work to improve the working environment and our team has responded positively and constructively to this,” she said.
Culture and rostering were highlighted as the top issues for staff and management was in the process of forming representative AT working groups to examine these issues. The groups would make suggestions for solutions.
Health Minister Andrew Little says the health workforce, and making sure there are enough workers, is his top priority. (Video first published October 28, 2022)