Written by Darren Law for Ambulance Active
I recently resigned as a paramedic after 28 years of full-time professional service. In those 28 years, every Australian state and territory ambulance service has had multiple independent reviews into service delivery and culture. Without exception, each of those reviews has found that respective service wanting in how they treat their staff.
The latest of those reviews in Victoria took the form of a review into the culture by no less than the state’s Human Rights Commission. The Commission’s damning findings were that bullying, harassment, and discrimination were structurally endemic within Ambulance Victoria.
“For too many, the impacts have been profound and long-lasting. Those experiences, detailed in this report, make for difficult reading.” – Ro Allen (Victorian Human Rights Commissioner).
“This Report is both painful and confronting. It has laid bare a significant part of Ambulance Victoria that many might not believe existed, but it does.
The breadth and depth of issues of incivility, disrespect, discrimination, sexual harassment, bullying and victimisation in our workplace are deeply disturbing.” Ken Lay (Board Chair Ambulance Victoria).
Ambulance Victoria’s official response to staff… let’s draw a line in the sand here and move forward. This is a line I have heard many times over 28 years. The result invariably is tinkering around the edges, papering over the cracks, and ultimately a business-as-usual approach. No meaningful, lasting structural change has ever been affected by any ambulance service. Those working in the ambulance sector inevitably continue to be damaged and treated as numbers and bums on seats. Despite the rhetoric, there continues to be little recognition of the human faces behind those FTE numbers.
Victorian paramedics must deal with the well-documented issues of workplace violence, PTSD, burnout. Other mental health issues the highest risk of workplace injuries (7 times greater than the general population) and chronically poor rostering practices that create significantly poorer sleep. Now it is finally publicly acknowledged that they must further contend with a toxic, hostile workplace.
It is now more apparent than ever that Ambulance Victoria is no more than a brand. Their dedicated frontline workers who willingly serve the public are treated no better than cogs in the machine that prop up that brand image.
These structurally endemic issues, identified by the Human Rights Commission, were buried, perpetuated, covered up and left unchecked until the brand was publicly challenged and tarnished. It wasn’t until the AEAV and a small group of brave paramedics stood up and publicly blackened the brand’s eye that these well kept but still open secrets were laid bare for all to see.
However, like all good corporate juggernauts, a public mea culpa was proffered by Ambulance Victoria, the obligatory line in the sand was drawn, we will do better speech was given, and metaphorical and literal warm fuzzies were passed around.
More importantly, there was a deafening collective “phew” from the management team that oversaw, participated in, and perpetuated this toxic workplace culture because guess what? They are all still in their jobs! The brand is intact, some tinkering around the edges, and it’s back to business as usual see you on Monday.
No real, meaningful, and lasting change can or will be affected while the perpetrators, in this case, the assailants (or should that be defendants) that allowed this noxious pervasive culture that harmed and damaged so many good people are left to go about the business of the brand unsanctioned.
Ambulance Victoria has never flinched at bringing to heel those paramedics they have considered to have tarnished the brand image. They have put them through the dehumanising, damaging investigatory process of the Professional Conduct Unit (PCU). However, what is abundantly clear is that these same “integrity processes” don’t apply to those in a position of power within the organisation. Those with different epaulettes to the rank and file that have seemingly endorsed, perpetuated and even inflicted the identified structural bullying, harassment, and discrimination are not and will not be subjected to the same integrity process of the PCU. That would damage the brand, even today. Mr Lay talks about laying bare the disrespect, incivility, sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination; however, that seemingly only applies to the rank and file, not the senior brand managers who author and affect the policy and procedures that underscore the business-as-usual approach.
There is a mountain of work with 24 recommendations from the Human Rights Commission in volume one alone and volume two soon to be released. However, cosmetic tinkering around the edges will not suffice. Generational change at the top is required. The boys club must go. It is time to stop treating the provision of a life-saving frontline emergency service as a brand opportunity. A mea culpa and a line in the sand is not good enough. Victorian ambulance workers demand and deserve more! Structural change means STRUCTURAL CHANGE!