String of suicides spark workplace review into St John Ambulance

by Nicola Middlemiss06 Nov 2015
A review into the Western Australia branch of St John Ambulance has been prompted by a spate of suicides allegedly linked to the organisation’s culture of bullying.

According to an in-depth report by the ABC, paramedics also fear losing their jobs if they speak out about mental health issues.

Former paramedics and relatives of those who took their own lives are now calling for a new system of support services and an overhaul to the working culture of St John.

Last November, Marcia Vaughan took her own life at the Kalgoorlie Ambulance Depot where she worked. Her brother James told the ABC that she regularly spoke of a cultural problem at St John.

“It was a boy’s club,” he told ABC’s 7.30 program.

“If you didn't fit in or want to play the game then you were basically ostracised and if you spoke out, you were put back in your place fairly quickly.”

Vaughan claimed that his sister had spoken out on several occasions, making multiple complaints about bullying by her colleagues and middle managers.

Her complaints were investigated but eventually dismissed due to a lack of evidence, with Vaughan being put on a performance management plan shortly afterwards when her performance levels dropped.

Correspondence between Vaughan and St John managers revealed that the organisation recognised she had wellbeing issues two months before her death. While the organisation suggested Vaughan seek assistance, her performance management scheme was continued.

Two months later, Vaughan took her own life in her workplace.

According to the coroner’s report into her death, Vaughan had had a meeting with management just hours earlier, during which an allegation of misconduct was reportedly raised.

“The deceased denied the allegation and was told how and when to respond in writing,” the report read.

“The deceased appeared surprised and worried during the meeting.”

“For an organisation that claims to be for the service of humanity, which no doubt they are, they're not for the service of employees,” Vaughan’s brother said.

Unfortunately Vaughan’s case was not an isolated incident for the WA branch of St John.

In December 2013, Bill Devine took his own life 11 days after leaving the ambulance service.

The following August, a volunteer took his own life; and in November – shortly before Vaughan’s suicide – James Brook took his own life.

Reviews into the organisation were not sparked, however, until a volunteer took his own life last March.

Tony Ahern, St John’s CEO, said the organisation was going through a tough time.

“I think it's critical that we find answers, but one of the things is that it's about making sure I think we don't just jump in one direction with the answers, because we know this problem is a huge problem across our whole community,” he said.

However, he denied the organisation had issues with its workplace culture and employee support services.

“Employees and former employees have mechanisms like Fair Work Australia and other avenues they can pursue,” he said.

“And I just believe that if the statements that some people make — that there's this real culture of bullying — it would have come to light but there just hasn't been.”

United Voice – the union that represents ambulance workers – argued that there was a deep level of distrust and dissatisfaction with the support available to St John employees.

President Pat O’Donnell said that there was a fear that any complaints would see workers “performance managed” out of their job.

“There are certainly cases where people are saying that they aren't coping and that ends up in an assessment process where their careers do end,” he said.

“I think as far as the culture goes, people are afraid to indicate that they are struggling.

“I think a lot of people see that if you raise that you are not coping, that that's the end of your career.”

Although concerns had been raised in a number of submissions to the ongoing reviews, Ahern said he did not expect them to lead to a major overhaul.

“We invest today ten times what we invested two years ago in wellbeing and support,” he told the ABC.

“And again it’s not a ‘here’s the problem, here’s the solution, just do it’, it's much more complex than that but we're absolutely committed to it.”

St John Ambulance has been contacted by HC for comment. 


  • by Bernie Althofer 6/11/2015 11:58:31 AM

    Over the past few years, Australia has seen a number of reviews conducted into various organisations where allegations of bullying have been occurring. It seems that organisations still need systems and processes in place to identify those review reports, and then conduct a risk assessment to determine the potential for similar incidents to occur in their own organisation.

    It also seems that organisations do conduct 'staff satisfaction surveys' and the like, and in some cases the findings or recommendations are implemented. However, in some organisations, the surveys are conducted on a regular basis with no apparent implementation or change occurring.

    As indicated in other discussion groups, just because the executives do not have data on the incidence of bullying, it does not mean that it is not occurring. In some cases, the processes for reporting and resolving incidents take considerable, put additional pressure on the target, or the culture is such that speaking up, results in additional intimidation, threats or harassment. Bullying risk assessments can help to identify signify gaps between how the executive and senior management perceive the workplace, and how workers in general perceive the same workplace. Internal reviews seem at times to carry issues of conflict with some targets believing that if they identify bullying or any related issues, the information will be used against them.

    If targets see that they are getting proactive support before, during and after an incident, they may be more likely to come forward. If they perceive that the alleged bully is 'rewarded' or that 'bullying' behaviours are found to be reasonable management actions, they may form a view that it is not worth the additional stress of speaking up.

    One always hopes that when any review is conducted, the findings and recommendations are seriously considered by the executive, and implemented. However, some reviews do take some time for various reasons, so some targets may end up believing that a 'whitewash' is happening. Some targets will want to know what is happening and responses may only add to their concerns. Getting targets to be involved in reviews is difficult when there is a power imbalance; when the organisational systems and processes appear weighted against them .e.g. career limitiing move; or when their concerns are dismissed.

    Asking the right questions and knowing what the right questions to ask is always difficult. In some cases, asking the right question only appears as a threat to the target so they may be reluctant to respond.

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