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Employer apologises over ‘heavy handed’ letter to nurse

Southern Health management withdraws request to meet with employee over evidence given to a parliamentary inquiry on security and violence. By Darragh O'Keeffe and Linda Belardi.

Victoria's largest public health service provider has apologised to a nurse it summoned to a "performance/behaviour" meeting following remarks she made to a parliamentary inquiry into violence and security in hospitals.

Southern Health has told Nursing Review that there was an "error in judgement pertaining to the way the meeting was described". It has since withdrawn the request to meet with the emergency department nurse.

The incident has, however, led to the formation of a joint union-employer working party to investigate the under-reporting of violent incidents more broadly.

Dandenong Hospital emergency department nurse Leslie Graham told the state parliamentary inquiry on August 29 that she suffered either physical or verbal abuse at work every second day.

She said that despite being frequently subjected to violence she had never reported it to police because she thought it would cause issues with management.

Graham's comments were widely reported by media the following day, including by Nursing Review online.

Southern Health management wrote to Graham on August 31 requesting she attend a "performance/behaviour discussion". The letter to Graham outlined the topics to be discussed as including the comments attributed to her in the media, the perception that staff were afraid to speak to management about workplace violence, and the hospital's code of conduct for employees.

The Australian Nursing Federation Victorian branch, which then became involved, condemned the actions of Southern Health in seeking the meeting, accusing it of "heavy-handed" tactics.

In a statement the union said it understood that evidence provided to a parliamentary committee, including evidence subsequently reported in the media, was subject to parliamentary privilege and those who give evidence were "protected against adverse consequences".

Southern Health has since apologised to Graham and acknowledged the terms of the meeting were an "error".

It told Nursing Review that the intent of the meeting was "to follow up on the nurses concerns and issues relating to the Dandenong Hospital emergency department to enable us to address such concerns".

"What has occurred is not our normal process and unfortunately has arisen due to an error in judgement pertaining to the way the meeting was described, this error is acknowledged and we are taking steps to ensure it does not occur again... We have apologised to the nurse involved," its statement said.

Southern Health said it was "supportive of the right of staff to be able to speak freely at a parliamentary committee" and was "always open to discuss with staff any issues that are of concern".

The incident has led to the creation of a joint committee to examine the broader issue of nurses raising concerns about safety, the ANF Victorian branch said.

Paul Gilbert, branch assistant secretary, told Nursing Review the joint ANF-Southern Health committee was due to be established shortly. He said a union meeting with the nursing staff at the Dandenong Hospital emergency department showed the views expressed by Graham were widely shared by many staff, but there were a number of reasons why they weren't being raised.

"Some people were concerned about rocking the boat, some people were concerned about the amount of time that it took, some people were concerned by a perception that nothing would be done if they did report it, so there are all different reasons why there is under-reporting of violence," Gilbert said.

He said the committee's main aim would be to review incidents that have occurred and investigate what can be done from a safety point of view, and to work to remove barriers for nurses reporting to management and police.

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