‘Pressure cooker’ conditions

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An embattled Latrobe Regional Hospital director has defended the management of its mental health wards in the face of frustrated employees speaking out against “unacceptable” working conditions.

Five mental health workers from the hospital’s Flynn adult psychiatric unit have contacted The Express in protest of “pressure cooker” working conditions, which they claim have progressively deteriorated in recent years.

While only three workers agreed to have their comments printed – on the condition of anonymity – the comments from all five workers, made independently of each other, correlated to depict a workforce at breaking point.

One long term mental health worker said while conditions had long been unacceptable, underpinned by low morale and high frustration, the situation had in the past 12 months reached “crisis point”.

The workers said resentment had been building among “over-worked” staff, exacerbated by an increase in the amount of sick leave being taken.

Education and training of incoming staff had been “stripped bare”, and the ward had seen an “enormous” employee turnover, the workers said.

While all workers said many of the conditions were forced by “grossly” inadequate mental health service funding, they were at particular odds with the management style and decisions made within the Flynn Ward, identifying a “lack of transparency” from management in explaining its decisions with workers.

“You just cannot run a mental health service like that, not only is it eating away at your workers, you are not running adequate service for the clients – it’s a bandaid job right the way through,” another worker said, pointing to the ward’s limited access to qualified psychiatrists.

“It has to be addressed and has to be addressed now – we aren’t just in trouble there – it’s at crisis point.”

The workers contacted The Express after it published contents of a damning internal review of nursing practices in LRH’s mental health wards, depicting an uncoordinated and sometimes apathetic working environment, lacking leadership and chain of command.

Another worker said while The Express story stirred up a lot of “pent up emotions” among staff, it was hoped the increased exposure would force change within the workplace.

In a comprehensive response to each of the worker’s claims, LRH mental health director Cayte Hoppner commended the 75-strong bed-based workforce at the Flynn and Macalister wards.

“(They) are hardworking and dedicated staff committed to providing the best patient care possible in what is an exceptionally busy and demanding area of health service provision,” Ms Hoppner said.

Ms Hoppner said the ward was staffed in line with Enterprise Bargaining Agreement conditions, “factoring in levels of acuity and clinical needs”.

“We are… developing more robust requirements to meet policy and practice standards. When any organisation embarks on a change process some employees will find this difficult to embrace,” she said.

Ms Hoppner said staff were provided a regular schedule of education focused on clinical care and occupational hazard prevention and management, and were given clinical supervision and access to Employee Assistance Programs.

“Consistent with health practitioner registration, all staff are individually accountable for meeting their minimum hours for professional development each year,” she said.

Ms Hoppner said LRH was currently moving through a period of change, implementing a new recovery-based model of care designed to reduce the use of restrictive interventions.

Health and Community Services Union assistant secretary Paul Healy said the workers’ concerns at the Flynn Ward were characteristic of regional mental health wards across the state.

“When you go to talk to your members at places like this, you sometimes walk away like you’ve just done crisis counselling – but it’s the only opportunity they get to really vent about how they are feeling,” Mr Healy said.

“There has been a underfunding of mental health for a long time – we see it happening everywhere and everyone is trying to restructure, but in the process we’ve seen meaningful training completely drop off.

“And being the only psychiatric inpatient unit in Gippsland makes it extremely busy, on top of the documented shortage of beds there – so it’s pretty obvious they are working with some fairly limited resources to meet that constant demand and pressure on beds.”

An AMA Victoria spokesperson said while the association was concerned by reports of high staff turnover and low morale, it was unable to directly comment on the issues raised with The Express as it kept communication with members confidential.

“As we monitor and assist our members who are LRH employees, we strongly encourage the hospital’s management to address any grievances they may have. Failure to do so will have a detrimental impact on the community’s access to healthcare,” the spokesperson said.

Ms Hoppner said management encouraged staff to raise their issues at staff meetings, and relevant committees provided opportunities for staff to feed back workplace issues.

She said staff had been invited to join focus groups to discuss the results of a recent ‘people matter survey’ which covered job satisfaction, workplace bullying and patient safety.