Jennifer* loved being an Assistant In Nursing (AIN) at her local aged care facility, but red flags arose for her from the beginning of her employment and eventually lead to her resigning with significant psychological distress as a result of workplace bullying.
Like many aged care workers, Jennifer experienced bullying from senior nursing staff and was ignored by management when she reported instances of discrimination, negligence and malpractice.
SafeWork Australia defines bullying as repeated and unreasonable behaviour by a single person or a group, directed towards a worker or group of workers that creates a risk to their health or safety.
It can be direct or indirect, physical or psychological, and isn’t always intentional, but can cause physical and psychological harm to others.
For Jennifer, she was left with psychological scars, a difficult Workcover claim and now a disdain for the aged care sector.
Having migrated to the Sunshine Coast in 2019 from Kenya, Jennifer was ecstatic to secure a job in the kitchen of a local aged care facility, which was her stepping stone to progressing her career in the care sector.
But her optimism was quashed quickly, as she experienced racism and degradation from the beginning of her employment.
When attempting to clarify unclear elements of her employment contract, Jennifer said upper management was condescending and rude to her in the process, causing her to reconsider taking the job in the first place.
This type of behaviour was exhibited by fellow employees as well, particularly by senior Registered Nurses (RNs) when she became an AIN.
Jennifer believed these nurses felt new AINs and carers were a threat to their job, so they refused to teach them and dismissed them when they raised concerns about protocol not being followed.
“The environment was really toxic. I don’t know if it happens to other ethnicities, but as a black person, you’re seen as stupid and that you don’t know anything,” she explained.
“I didn’t have a great knowledge of what bullying was and before you realise what is being done to you, you have been drained of your self-confidence and self-esteem, and it starts to affect your personal life.
Jennifer said residents were put in danger at the facility she worked at, particularly during COVID-19, as Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs) became harder to obtain and providers were not being diligent enough with testing visitors entering these facilities.
Having caught COVID from within the facility, she began hearing sneers and snide comments from other staff accusing her of bringing the virus into the facility.
When returning to work after isolating, Jennifer produced an unclear RAT that had a faint second line visible on the test, but was told by one of the nurses she could start her shift. When upper management found out about this, she was escorted off of the property.
“That is when I realised I needed to become part of a union,” she said.
“[The facility] has a saying: ‘when you see something, say something’, but we all know it’s swept under the rug and once you talk about it, you become the target.”
The final straw for Jennifer was when her employer didn’t make her aware that she was feeding a resident who had an infectious disease, and undertook this task without the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE).
Having been held up at the entrance trying to obtain a RAT to start her shift, Jennifer missed the shift handover where care staff were informed that this particular resident had scabies.
By the time Jennifer made it to the ward, no one caught her up on what she had missed, which saw her enter this resident’s room without proper PPE.
“After this incident, I could hear senior nurses talking about it and decided to confront them.
“When I approached them, they stopped speaking about it and began telling me I should have attended the handover and that I shouldn’t rely on other people. I told her I had never missed the handover and it was because there were no RATs available.
“I had to walk away because I was upset, I was shaking and didn’t want it to turn into something else and I knew I couldn’t continue working there, no matter how much I loved the job and the residents.”
When she attempted to walk away from that conversation, one of the nurses yelled at Jennifer from up the hallway, which was the moment she decided to resign.
The effects of bullying can present in a myriad of ways, which often include feelings of low self-esteem, anxiety and depression, deterioration of relationships at work, and taking increased personal leave.
The Australian Nursing & Midwifery Federation outlines that direct forms of bullying can include:
More indirect way of bullying includes:
Jennifer experienced all of these elements of bullying at her workplace and is now suffering psychological repercussions because of it.
Despite reporting these events to management and explaining the reasons she was resigning, no repercussions have yet to come for the bullies and the provider continued to work against Jennifer after her departure.
After resigning in July, Jennifer took her bully case to Workcover, mainly to receive some psychological help.
She said despite her claim officer admitting she had experienced bullying over time, last month they refused it and said she needed more solid evidence.
With the only available evidence being CCTV footage from her former employer, Jennifer is doubtful they will produce this evidence and is now having to take her claim to the Workcover regulator with a union-appointed lawyer for them to reconsider.
“I feel like giving up and that no one is listening,” she explained.
“Workcover is meant to help you get back to work, but now I worry about putting my previous employer on my CV because I don’t know what they will say to any future employers ringing for a reference.”
Jennifer is currently not working due to psychological stress but has aspirations to carry on caring for people as a Registered Nurse.
She has considered being a nurse in community care settings but has doubts around whether she will ever return to aged care.
“My experience has ruined that for me, and so many people feel the same,” Jennifer said.
“So many people have left from [that facility], there was such a high staff turnover.
“I have even told my ageing mother that she will not be going into an aged care facility and that she will receive care at home because there is no care going on in those places.”
While the sector rejoiced at the Federal Government’s interim decision to boost direct aged care workers’ wages by 15%, Jennifer believes that will not be enough to improve the sector and, in turn, reduce bullying in aged care.
“People seem to be focused on the pay rise for aged care workers and that it is going to fix the sector, but there’s much more that needs to be done,” she said.
“Migrants come here and don’t know their rights and are exploited – they’re told to work more hours than is allowed but what are they paid with? Pizzas or gift cards.
“Spending money on those things should be used to employ more staff to fix the shortages and bullying needs to be spoken about and put forward because it’s happening a lot in the care industry.”
*Jennifer wished to remain anonymous to provide her story on workplace bullying.
Have you experienced workplace bullying at an aged care facility? What did your employer do about it? Let us know in the comments below.