Death of Calvary Hospital nurse subjected to alleged bullying under investigation
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Death of Calvary Hospital nurse subjected to alleged bullying under investigation

Calvary Hospital has launched an internal investigation into the suicide of an emergency department nurse who was allegedly bullied at work during the space of a year.

Andrew Earl, who had been a nurse since 2009, was found dead in his Canberra home in late June 2017.

Calvary Hospital nurse Andrew Earl.

Calvary Hospital nurse Andrew Earl.

Those closest to him have told The Sunday Canberra Times that before his death, Andrew faced relentless psychological bullying while in the workplace.

Calvary Hospital refused to comment on the alleged bullying when contacted.

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Calvary Hospital is investigating the circumstances behind Andrew's death.

Calvary Hospital is investigating the circumstances behind Andrew's death.Credit:Melissa Adams

The ACT Health Services Commissioner is investigating Andrew's death following a formal complaint made to it in September 2017. The commission underwent a review into the incident, according to documents seen by the Times.

"This decision [to investigate] was made on the basis that if substantiated, the issues raised may reveal systemic problems at Calvary Hospital," the document said.

His death also triggered an investigation in the ACT Coroners Court. A decision was made in February not to hold a full hearing after initial inquiries.

While the coroner was unable to find enough evidence to prove the alleged bullying was the sole cause of Andrew's suicide, those who knew the nurse have rejected the findings, and are seeking answers about what happened in Calvary's emergency department.

'It wore him down'

According to those who knew him, Andrew Earl was the type of nurse you would want around in a life-threatening situation.

"He was the most gentle and giving person you'll ever meet," a long-time friend said.

"All nurses are so incredible and giving and compassionate and they work so hard, and Andrew was just the epitome of that. He was a beautiful person."

After graduating in 2009, Andrew worked as a nurse in the emergency department of Calvary Hospital, a position he held for many years.

Away from the emergency room, those close to him describe Andrew as a talented swing dancer, a lover of cooking, a breeder of Japanese spitz dogs and someone who made many friends across the world playing online games of Scrabble.

According to those close to him, Andrew was also the target of alleged bullying within Calvary's emergency department, which they claim eventually contributed to his death.

A close friend of Andrew's, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told The Sunday Canberra Times that Andrew was subjected to bullying over many months.

She said toward the end of his life, Andrew confided in her about the details of the bullying.

"He experienced psychological bullying. Over time it wore him down until he was mentally and emotionally exhausted," the friend said.

"He told me that he had to report it so it wouldn't happen to anyone else. In the end, he didn't have the strength."

The friend said Andrew told her the bullying began after a single incident with a colleague.

"[The colleague] constantly criticised and questioned his work. [Andrew told me the colleague] made changes to his work so it appeared to the rest of his team that he'd completed his work incompetently. Over nine to 12 months, it wore him down until he was mentally and emotionally exhausted," she said.

"He felt belittled and also ashamed that he couldn't cope with it. He also knew that by reporting it he would risk jeopardising his career and be labelled unfit for practice."

As a result of the bullying, Andrew took time away from work on stress leave, but as the leave was starting to run out and the return to the emergency department was getting closer, the friend said he was dreading it more and more.

"He ran out of stress leave and personal leave. No one raised the alarm until he hadn't shown up at work for four days after he was due back."

A former colleague of Andrew's, who declined to be named, said the emergency nurse was the model of the perfect employee.

While she wasn't working at Calvary at the time of the alleged bullying, she said she still heard about it through people working in the ACT health system.

She said if bullying was reported to managers at Calvary, it would be "swept under the carpet".

"What's upset me the most was that Andrew is a victim of circumstance, a victim of the organisation and the nastiness that is endemic in that place," she said.

"I was really distressed when I heard about [what happened to Andrew].

"He would've just kept toiling along, doing the job he was supposed to be doing. He wouldn't have spoken about the intimidation by management."

Investigations continue

Andrew's case is just one of many alleged bullying incidents inside the ACT health system. Earlier this year, The Sunday Canberra Times revealed ACT Health investigated seven instances of bullying and harassment in the 2016-17 financial year, and several staff were sacked as a result.

The Australian Medical Association and the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons have previously said the number of bullying incidents was higher than reported as many people were afraid of speaking out.

A KPMG report in 2015 found 76 per cent of ACT Health staff had observed bullying, harassment or discrimination.

ACT Health said all seven of the report's recommendations were being implemented in order to reduce bullying in the workplace.

While the Calvary investigation into Andrew's circumstances is still ongoing, a full hearing will not be held in the coroners court following initial inquests, which concluded last month.

"The coroner was of the opinion after consideration of police and other information that the manner and cause of Mr Earl's death was sufficiently disclosed and that a hearing was unnecessary," a spokeswoman for the Coroners Court said.

The ACT's chief coroner said there was no agreed legal definition of suicide in an "Australian coronial context", and evidence required for suicide to be the legal finding for a manner of death will "depend on the context and circumstances of a particular death".

"Sometimes in potential suicide cases there will be evidence which is capable of multiple interpretations; in such cases the coroner exercises judgment in accordance with legal principle to arrive at findings with which she or he is reasonably satisfied on the available evidence," the chief coroner said.

"Where no single interpretation is preferable on the evidence, there may be an open finding."

The Sunday Canberra Times sent Calvary Hospital a list of questions on the alleged bullying but a hospital spokesman said Calvary would not respond.

"Calvary is not able to comment on the death of Andrew Earl. We respect Andrew's privacy and our thoughts remain with his family and friends," the spokesman said.

"Andrew was a much liked and admired member of the Calvary team and is greatly missed."

Rather than a funeral, a memorial service was held for Andrew, with the chapel at Calvary Hospital overflowing with people paying their last respects.

In the aftermath of his death, the long-time friend said many people who knew Andrew were just wanting the truth to come out about what happened in the corridors of the emergency department.

"Hospitals need to create a culture that encourages other managers to raise a flag. Bullying victims shouldn't have to bear the responsibility of reporting their own cases," she said.

"It's devastating for everyone, especially his colleagues. I think about him every day, and I'm sure they do too."

Do you know more? Email: andrewbrown@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Lifeline: 13 11 14

BeyondBlue: 1300 22 4636

Andrew Brown is a journalist at the Sunday Canberra Times. Andrew has worked at the Canberra Times since 2016.

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