Saturday, November 27

Veterans Affairs under cultural review for ‘toxic’ harassment allegations and resignations


Veterans Affairs workers have made official complaints that the bullying is so severe that they feel suicidal.

Silhouette of a man playing his bugle at a veterans funeral at the Medical Lake Veterans Memorial in Washington.

Photo: 123RF

At least five complaints were filed with the workplace safety regulator WorkSafe as early as May.

It has not started a formal investigation, but asked the Defense Force to review the “workplace culture” in its 80-person semi-autonomous VA unit.

Defense says it will do this, “with the support of the Veterans Affairs leadership team,” even though that team is the subject of some of the complaints.

The Public Services Association wonders why there is no independent investigation.

The PSA union says it knows of at least five workers who quit because of harassment in the past year.

“They were afraid for their future and their own state of mind and well-being … people were afraid to go to work,” said Public Services Association union Advocacy organizer Mark James.

“They felt suicidal.”

People feared coming to work for fear of intimidation and discrimination, which came to a head earlier this year over management’s “extreme” reaction to a workplace gossip incident, leading to to the PSA to file personal complaint procedures, James said.

James says resignations continue.

‘People are quitting even now’

After the complaints, WorkSafe alerted Defense in mid-June “to the allegations of leadership and harassment.”

The defense responded: “You also mentioned that you had received multiple reports of suicidal thoughts from both complainants and that the complainants witnessed from others.

“These additional concerns are obviously serious and we acknowledge and want to support our people, however, so far no complaints have been received from the NZDF.”

The claims center on a workplace culture that has been described by former workers as “incredibly toxic” since about 2019.

James said “if anything, it’s gotten worse” since the complaints, even though the Defense told VA staff they were taking action.

“People are quitting … even now, in the last month.”

‘Impartial and independent’

In July, Defense asked WorkSafe to provide details so it could help, “particularly those employees who are most at risk.”

WorkSafe told the whistleblowers to contact a Defense Captain so they would not be afraid of “retaliation.”

It is not known whether the complainants did this.

James said members had come to WorkSafe because they feared retaliation if they raised issues directly with the NZDF.

“They have seen others raise concerns and be treated inappropriately.”

WorkSafe’s official advice is that bullying investigations must be conducted by someone “impartial and independent.”

When asked by RNZ about this, Defense said so and VA had agreed to implement all WorkSafe requests.

“If WorkSafe believed that the matter required a more urgent response or that their requests were not being properly implemented, they would have expected WorkSafe to say so,” Defense said by email.

The defense did not respond whether employee health and safety representatives are supporting the staff.

James said he understood that the Defense review constituted a management investigation, but said this should be done independently.

Another tip from the government is that bullying investigations can be complex and when “there is a risk of a toxic work environment,” organizations can choose to bring an external investigator.

Three months after the first complaint, WorkSafe says it is still conducting “initial investigations.”

“This is not a formal investigation at this stage and Veterans Affairs has cooperated,” he told RNZ.

‘Checking the box’

WorkSafe may investigate bullying, but has been struggling with the extent of the problem.

Documents show that last year, in the face of an increase in reports of bullying, he was trying to catch up on bullying.

It had realized that its staff were “not adequately trained” and its investigations were too “limited”. I was also struggling to evaluate or classify, harassment complaints correctly.

The PSA says that, in the current case, WorkSafe told the union that it would review bullying policies at VA.

“That’s a tick-tock,” James said.

No matter how good the policies look, they are clearly not being enforced, he said.

The defense told RNZ it would review the intimidation policy, worker engagement, representation and participation in its unit.

James said years of staffing problems had culminated in an internal survey that revealed very low morale in Veterans Affairs about a year ago.

Since then, things had degenerated, he claimed.

“The members have contacted us simply to tell us that they couldn’t take it anymore.”

Nationwide bullying complaints to WorkSafe increased from 100 between 2014 and 2017 to 89 in 2018 alone.

VA, with 80 employees and an annual budget of $ 76 million, works with 12,000 military returnees, mostly elderly, and 20 support groups, and helps service 183 cemeteries.

Defense personnel director Colonel Helen Cooper said the review would not affect any of the services provided to veterans.

Veterans affairs revised his approach after a review in 2018 and law changes last year.

One of its four goals is “to generate a sustainable workforce to provide excellent customer service.”

WorkSafe in an additional statement said it was not the right agency to support workers who may be suicidal and instead informed them of healthcare providers who could help.

His job was to review what an organization did about bullying, not telling you what to do, WorkSafe said.

He was looking to see if Defense and Veterans Affairs had the correct systems in place, he said.

While he encouraged workers to raise health and safety concerns directly with managers, in this case he “respected the wishes of the workers involved who have not wanted to raise issues internally.”

Last year WorkSafe created an internal task force for mental health and health inspectors kaimahi hauora.

Read the full response from the OIA:

Where to get help:

I need to talk? Call toll-free or text 1737 anytime to speak with a trained counselor, for any reason.

Life line: 0800 543 354 or text HELP to 4357

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865/0508 TAUTOKO (24 hours a day, 7 days a week). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide or for those who are worried about family or friends.

Helpline for depression: 0800111757 (24/7) or text 4202

Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week)

Youthline: 0800376633 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week) or send a free text message to 234 (8 am to 12 am), or send an email to [email protected] nz

What’s the matter: online chat (3 PM to 10 PM) OR 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428787 Helpline (12 PM to 10 PM Monday to Friday, 3 PM to 11 PM) M. On weekends)

Kidsline (from 5 to 18 years old): 0800 543 754 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week)

Rural Support Trust Helpline: 0800 787 254

Health line: 0800 611 116

Rainbow youth: (09) 376 4155

If it is an emergency and you feel that you or someone else is at risk, call 111.


www.rnz.co.nz

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