National

The federal Health Department: 80-hour weeks, bullying, command and control

Middle managers at the federal Health Department are afraid that promotion might see them working 80 hours a week, and most of the excessive hours worked by senior executives at Health have been blamed on inefficiency, duplication and waste.

Work to be done: Secretary of the Health Department Martin Bowles.
Work to be done: Secretary of the Health Department Martin Bowles. Photo: Penny Bradfield

And a "Capability Review" of the key department has found it is beset by a culture of "inappropriate behaviour" including bullying and harassment, a command-and-control approach by top bosses and an environment where mistakes are not tolerated.

On the upside, Health has won praise for the dedication and quality of its public servants and its ability to get things done.

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The recently departed Health boss Jane Halton was found to have "provided clear task and policy direction for the organisation and was recognised by employees and external stakeholders for her in-depth knowledge of the health sector".

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But Ms Halton was also found to have presided over a department that was "hierarchical and siloed" with a "command-and-control" approach to management and where public servants were afraid of the consequences of mistakes or to break bad news to its leadership.

Responding to the review, new departmental secretary Martin Bowles said he and his management team accepted the need to tackle "unacceptable behaviours" and that they would focus on the department's "core values and desired behaviours".

'Command-and-control': Former Health Department boss Jane Halton.
'Command-and-control': Former Health Department boss Jane Halton. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

The authors of the review, from the Public Service Commission, were worried by the dangerously long working hours of Health's senior executives.

"Most Senior Executive Service employees advised the review team that they work excessive hours, with many noting an average of more than 80 hours a week, substantially in excess of the reported APS Employee Census data," the review team wrote.

"Executive Level 2 employees reported to the review team that they also regularly work long hours, with most volunteering that they have no desire to progress to a senior leadership position due to concerns about a further anticipated diminution of work-life balance."

But the commission found that much of the excess work did not even have to happen.

"Evidence before the review indicated that much of this workload was attributed to inefficiency of systems and processes, duplication and rework, which all lead to significant resource and capacity waste," they wrote.

The scrutineers from the commission were also worried about the level of bullying and harassment they were told about and the reluctance of public servants at Health to make formal complaints.

"The review team regularly heard evidence from employees and external stakeholders of a culture of 'inappropriate' behaviour in some areas, including bullying and harassment," the commission's team wrote.

"The 2014 Census rate of 19 per cent compares with an average 15 per cent in like policy agencies.

"The relatively high reported rate of bullying in the Census does not correlate with the data held by the department on formal complaints about inappropriate behaviour."

Responding to the review, Mr Bowles said he and his team recognised there was work to be done.

"The executive leadership team and I recognise that we need to strengthen leadership engagement and address unacceptable behaviours," the former Immigration boss wrote.

"This starts with us and modelling the behaviours we expect of others.

"We will focus on our core values and desired behaviours so everyone is aware of their obligations and committed to change, especially in relation to how we treat each other. It is vital that we continue to motivate our people by involving them."

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