"I've got nothing left to lose but my voice" - by Laura Walters for Newsroom

Two women who’ve lost their livelihoods, and whose lives are at risk, say New Zealand does not have a system set up to properly address severe workplace bullying. Laura Walters reports.

  • LA comments: here is the link: . The only thing we would like to add is that there has even been an attempt to take away Ms Kennedy's voice by filing a disputed "non-publication order" in the District Court to prevent her from recounting her experiences in a book, and we will update on this when we know more.

Two senior social workers are experiencing financial hardship, as well as life-threatening physical and mental health issues, following what they describe as sustained bullying and no access to justice.

Now, former Oranga Tamariki senior social worker Susan Kennedy, and another senior social worker who cannot be named for legal reasons, say they’re out of options, and struggling to access support.

Their desperate appeals to change how the country deals with workplace bullying complaints come in the wake of a Newsroom investigation into the workplace culture at Oranga Tamariki.

But both Oranga Tamariki general manager of people and leadership Rachel Gully and Children’s Minister Tracey Martin say there was no evidence of a bullying culture within the government department. 

While the complainants say they were bullied by their managers at Oranga Tamariki -  Kennedy also says she was sexually harassed by a colleague at the ministry - the issues that have led to their current situations are broader than what happened at one government department.

In Kennedy’s case, she has been fighting for validation, compensation and closure for more than three years, both internally at Oranga Tamariki and across numerous government departments.

She’s tried mediation and litigation, but has become too sick to continue with what experts describe as the adversarial Employment Relations Authority (ERA) process. A WorkSafe investigation, which was launched following media coverage of her attempted suicide in 2018, found Oranga Tamariki had processes in place to deal with workplace bullying, and took no further action.

Meanwhile, the woman from Auckland, who cannot be named, lost her ERA case for unjustified disadvantage and decided to cut a deal, after struggling to navigate the Employment Court process.

She agreed to take no further action and not talk about her experience. In return, she could say she resigned from Oranga Tamariki, and would be paid her owed wages. But she wants to tell her story in the hope it will stop others going through the same experience.

She’s now reliant on ACC sickness payments, and says her interactions with ACC have been re-traumatising.

Like Kennedy, she’s struggled to navigate the system, without money, support and with the added challenge of severe mental health issues, including PTSD, anxiety and insomnia.

Both women have laid complaints with numerous government departments and ministers in the hope someone will intervene.

Now both women are desperate and out of options.

They said they wanted to share their stories to empower others to speak up about workplace bullying, and in an effort to change the way the country viewed and responded to complaints of workplace bullying.

“I’ve lost my wage, I’ve gone into poverty, I don’t have family around… What I have got left is my voice, and I sure as hell don’t intend on losing that."

Both women worked at the Oranga Tamariki national contact centre, and both had careers that spanned more than two decades.

Before these experiences of bullying, neither had faced workplace or client complaints, and both were known as strong and experienced advocates in their workplace.

Now both women are facing losing their houses, and the adverse impacts on their mental health mean neither are likely to be able to work again.

If they were still employed as social workers, they would each be on an annual income of $103,000.

Instead, Kennedy is on a benefit of $13,000 a year. 

In addition to the prospect of losing her home, Kennedy has had to sell her car, jewellery, camera and 90 percent of her furniture to survive. 

“I’m basically camping out in my own home.”

She’s also suffered two sensory strokes, and she attempted suicide following her experience at Oranga Tamariki, which her psychologist described it as one of the most concerning bullying cases to occur within a government department.

She now suffers from PTSD, anxiety, migraines and insomnia, and has been diagnosed with major depressive disorder as a result of the trauma she endured.

Oranga Tamariki general manager of people and leadership Rachel Gully said considerable effort had gone into achieving a fair outcome for Kennedy. 

Gully pointed to two MBIE mediation sessions, a settlement conference with the ERA, and other attempts to resolve the proceedings.

“Sadly, these efforts have not yet been successful, but we are hopeful that a resolution can eventually be reached.”

The current system for dealing with this type of dispute required Kennedy to go back to mediation or the ERA - something her doctor and experts have advised against, and something her advocate says could kill her.

Her psychologist, Prudence Fisher, and United States anti-workplace bullying activist and social psychologist Gary Namie said if Kennedy was to engage in the drawn-out and often adversarial ERA process, or further mediation, it would likely trigger several of her most severe trauma symptoms.

Kennedy’s refusal to return to the mediation table has left the two parties at an impasse. 

“I’ve lost my wage, I’ve gone into poverty, I don’t have family around… Lost my home, my car, my career, I’ve lost everything. So I’ve actually got nothing to lose.

“What I have got left is my voice, and I sure as hell don’t intend on losing that,” she said.

In an effort to find another, safer, way to get closure she has contacted Jacinda Ardern, Winston Peters, former Workplace Health and Safety Minister Iain Lees-Galloway, current minister Andrew Little, State Services Minister and Health Minister Chris Hipkins, and Minister for Children Tracey Martin.

On top of that, she’s laid complaints with the Ombudsman, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner, the Human Rights Commission, and the State Services Commission.

So far, none of the parties she’s contacted have intervened, or offered support or a solution.

Most of the ministerial responses were akin to a brush-off.

When contacted by Newsroom, all the government departments refused to say what steps they’d taken to help investigate or resolve the case. They mostly cited privacy considerations, while the Privacy Commissioner's office said it did not comment on ongoing investigations.

“My marriage, my personal life - just every aspect - my professional life, my career, everything has been destroyed."

Meanwhile, the Auckland social worker - who cannot be named for legal reasons - is surviving on an ACC benefit of about $50,000 a year.

She was also facing losing her house, after defaulting on her mortgage during the Covid-19 lockdown - soon after she was forced to leave her job, following her time on sickness leave without pay.

The woman has had to have a kidney removed after experiencing renal failure. This happened at the height of her employment dispute with Oranga Tamariki, and she said the stress of the experience played a role in her health problems.

Some days she was going straight to work from the hospital, or going to be admitted to the hospital immediately after finishing her shift.

The woman was also a union delegate for Oranga Tamariki workers, and said she was trying to help her members fight their personal grievances while dealing with her own experience. She believed her union role was the reason she was targeted by management in the first place.

The day after her kidney was removed, she had to join an ERA video conference from hospital, but said she struggled to understand what was happening due to the medication she was on.

“These are just some of the experiences I’ve gone through because of these people.”

As well as her ongoing physical health issues, the Auckland social worker suffers from PTSD, anxiety and severe insomnia. 

Her husband is also fighting cancer, which has been an additional strain on their finances and wellbeing.

“My marriage, my personal life - just every aspect - my professional life, my career, everything has been destroyed,” she said.

“We finally get our first home and then all of this happens. And now we’re sitting in a place of despair, because we don’t know how to get out of it.”

Their whānau did not have the resources to help, and like Kennedy, they’d had to pawn possessions. 

“We’re robbing Paul to pay Peter to survive from payday to payday.”

The woman wrote to the Prime Minister, asking her to intervene to stop the couple being evicted. Ardern referred her to finance minister Grant Robertson, but so far nothing had come of her pleas.

“I’m trying to repair, restore, recover for life after what I’ve gone through. But it’s been a bit of a test because we are still going through it.”

Minister for Children Tracey Martin says she's always concerned when issues like these are raised within her ministry, but she has seen no evidence of bullying issues within Oranga Tamariki.

Both women paint a picture of serious and sustained bullying for years, at the hands of their managers - and of being targeted for challenging decision-making, and standing up for colleagues and themselves. 

They spoke about being humiliated and put down in front of their peers - in Kennedy’s case, she was called a “narcissist” and called “mental” in front of her colleagues.

In the case of the Auckland social worker, she was put on a performance management plan after a decades-long career with no complaints or performance issues. She said this was a common strategy used to manage people out of the organisation. And managers would listen in on her calls without notice, sometimes giggling while she dealt with clients in distress.

And both were left without pay when taking sustained sick leave due to the physical and mental health issues that manifested following severe workplace stress.

Since Kennedy first shared her story publicly in late-2018, dozens of other social workers had contacted her, and her advocate, to say they’d had similar experiences.

And Newsroom’s recent investigation into the workplace culture at Oranga Tamariki suggests this is a wider issue.

All of the current and former social workers who spoke to Newsroom then said Oranga Tamariki had a toxic culture, where bullying of those who refuse to “toe the company line” was widespread.

A senior social worker said staff were “slammed” if concerns were raised about bad practice. Others agreed, saying if they spoke out they were “ostracised, marginalised and accused of being disloyal”.

Despite these complaints, Oranga Tamariki maintained there was no bullying culture within the organisation.

Gully said “localised issues” were to be expected in a large organisation where many staff worked in high-stress situations on the frontline.

The most recent staff turnover data and employee satisfaction survey results showed a healthy and improving culture, she said.

Annual turnover of front-line social workers dropped from 8 percent in June 2019 to about 6 percent as of the end of March. 

The overall organisational score in the 2019 engagement survey was 67 percent, compared to the public service benchmark of 62 percent. An independent report by the survey provider noted the score did not suggest systemic bullying.

Oranga Tamariki was also putting in place additional measures to address bullying issues that arose, Gully said.

These included the development of a new ‘positive workplace culture’ learning module for all staff, and an externally hosted ‘culture phone line’ where employees could anonymously raise issues with an independent party.

“However, there is always room for improvement, and we are committed to ensuring that Oranga Tamariki is a safe and inclusive place to work.”

There have been efforts by members of the Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers (ANZASW) to independently gather social workers' testimonies and experiences, to get a clear picture of Oranga Tamariki's workplace culture. But in recent weeks divisions had formed as some ANZASW members say they feel the ministry is trying to control these testimonies.

Meanwhile, the minister, Tracey Martin, said when issues were raised she sought information and explanations from the ministry. And this was what she did in Kennedy’s case.

“I’m always concerned about these issues being raised, but I haven’t seen evidence of any widespread issues of bullying within Oranga Tamariki.”

Martin said she had made a point of travelling around and talking to staff first-hand.

And recent conversations with staff had given her the strong impression they felt “the overall culture at Oranga Tamariki is positive and that it is improving”.

“The issues are complex, span employment and health and safety systems, and connect with wider matters around mental health, human rights and crime.”

While there has been a recent spotlight on Oranga Tamariki, the issue of workplace bullying was not confined to this ministry - or even the public service.

And while the experiences of these two women were extreme, they were not the only ones to suffer severe psychosocial harm as a result of workplace bullying and stress.

A 2009 academic survey put the rate of workplace bullying in New Zealand at one in every five Kiwis, making it the second-worst country in the world.

A WorkSafe survey spit the figure as high as one in every three Kiwis. And a Stats NZ study put the figure at 11 percent of the workforce, or 300,000.

While the data is varied, workplace bullying in New Zealand is a serious issue.

As well as the psychosocial harm, workplace bullying is estimated to cost the country up to $1 billion a year, due to decreased productivity, absenteeism, staff turnover, staff dissatisfaction and the cost of investigations.

And as much as 70 percent of the bullying is manager-down - as was the case for Kennedy and the other social worker.

Women were more likely to be targeted; as are Asian and Māori workers.

Despite the prevalence of bullying, experts say the current system isn’t equipped to properly respond to the issue.

Kennedy’s advocate, CultureSafe founder Allan Halse, said his client’s case showed what happened when a system wasn’t designed to safely, adequately and fairly address the harm and loss associated with workplace bullying.

While WorkSafe was able to investigate and prosecute workplace bullying cases, it had never pursued a prosecution.

In Kennedy’s case the brief investigation, which relied on documents rather than interviews, centred on whether Oranga Tamariki had sufficient processes in place to address workplace bullying, rather than the harm caused to Kennedy.

Despite being passed between departments, or fobbed off by those who were sick of her case, Kennedy and Halse said they planned to continue to try every avenue, and appeal to anyone who could help.

“I’m desperately trying to find an avenue to stop the harm,” Halse said. “Somebody needs to intervene. If nobody intervenes, Susan will die.”

“The bigger picture is there is no accessibility to justice in New Zealand.”

Halse said the best thing that could happen for these women, and the thousands of other New Zealand workers who were bullied each year, was an overhaul of the system - particularly in relation to WorkSafe’s powers and practices, and the ERA.

Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Andrew Little said the Government was working to develop a “productive, sustainable and inclusive economy”, which included safe and healthy jobs, free from bullying and harassment.

As part of this work, MBIE was conducting an inquiry into bullying and harassment at work, including a review of the health and safety and employment regulatory systems, and how they related to good practice. 

Little said this was the first time the government has had an in-depth look at the issues of bullying and harassment at work.

“The issues are complex, span employment and health and safety systems, and connect with wider matters around mental health, human rights and crime.”

Little said the inquiry had been delayed by Covid, and in the meantime WorkSafe was developing new approaches to addressing psychosocial harm, and continued to support workers and businesses to act in good faith. 

The Auckland woman said she didn’t know what her future held.

“It looks really dark for me and my husband. 

But she said she wanted people to know that no matter how they were targeted or bullied, “the truth always prevails, so stand up for yourself”.

Despite every day being a struggle for Kennedy, she said she would continue to fight to get recognition, validation and compensation for her case. And to hopefully help change the system for others.

“I recognise I didn’t die, and I’m here for a reason… I do have optimism for the future - sometimes not, sometimes I am still suicidal - but you can’t heal and start recovering because three-and-a-half years later you’re still being abused, on a massive scale,” she said.

“The bigger picture is there is no accessibility to justice in New Zealand.”

Where to get help:

1737, Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor

Lifeline – 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland

Samaritans – 0800 726 666

Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) – or email or free text 5626

Anxiety New Zealand - 0800 ANXIETY (0800 269 4389)

Supporting Families in Mental Illness - 0800 732 825

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