Former NZCare Disability employees claim 'toxic' workplace behaviours includes psychological bullying and favouritism

NZCare employees say the ability to perform their jobs, self-confidence and capability to move forward into other work were impacted.
NZCare employees say the ability to perform their jobs, self-confidence and capability to move forward into other work were impacted. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Two former NZCare Disability employees have spoken out about workplace bullying they claim to have endured that was so atrocious, it will stay with them forever.

Jane and Kate - neither of which are their real names - say unfair treatment at the Christchurch branch was initiated by management and slowly made its way down the company chain.

The pair allege behaviour within NZCare included "toxic", "unethical" and "unprofessional" practices, and heavily contributed to their mental health before they each resigned.

It comes as Newshub takes a deeper look into workplace bullying after exposing claims of mistreatment made by the family of a woman who took her own life after working at the Lyttelton Port Company for seven years. 

Both NZCare employees have opened up about experiences they feel impacted their ability to perform their jobs, self-confidence and capability to move forward into other work. 

The company is a subsidiary of Healthcare NZ and is one of the country’s largest providers of disability services. 

Chief Executive Vanessa Dudley told Newshub while she was unable to discuss the specific details of the claims, mediation is currently underway in the case raised by Newshub. 

She said the matter is being taken very seriously and she is committed to investigating evidence or examples raised. 

"I still have extreme anxiety"

Jane says she was assaulted on the job by a client in 2018, but believes NZCare didn't do anything to support her. 

When she asked management to call the police on her behalf, they refused, and instead divulged details of the alleged assault to another employee. 

She says the subsequent bullying and experiences she endured will have a life-long impact and is something she believes she'll never recover from.

She suffered a deep muscle injury to her thigh and an injury to her lower back from the alleged assault and was on ACC for almost six weeks. She was asked to provide a medical certificate, but reportedly didn't hear from management for a week-and-a-half to discuss the situation and have a debrief.

While in an eventual debrief for the alleged assault, the client alleged it was actually Jane that assaulted him.

She says she told managers she felt unsupported with her injury, they had no good faith and they should've gone to her first.

"They completely blocked me, they made me feel like it was all my fault, that I was useless… I really, really struggled," Jane told Newshub.

A former co-worker would contact her every couple of days because she was worried about Jane and how she was feeling.

"She was worried about me. She sent me all these messages about the fact that even though I don't want to be continuing on, it's worth continuing on. I just got real low. I became highly depressed."

When she returned to work following her assault, she was placed into a different team and was no longer allowed to work with younger people. She says however, this information was never directly relayed to her.

She alleges management told a team leader at a meeting she was no longer in her original team, and she was not able to work one-on-one with clients.

Jane then had a staff member - who had also been assaulted - come to her and say her situation had come up during her debrief.

"No privacy, no confidentiality. They told her it was my fault, that I set it up. And this is what they said to a team member who they didn't know came back to me and said, 'hey, they're saying this about you'... It was heartbreaking."

She reached out to the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) which she says gave her some promise, but she ultimately felt she couldn't work for NZCare anymore.

While having a meeting to discuss returning to work, Jane had a panic attack.

"I was scared of what they were going to do to me. Not what the person that assaulted me [would do], but managers. I had panic attacks from then up until I resigned."

While working out her resignation, she visited EAP again. Jane says she started having a "major" panic attack while roleplaying what to do if managers start displaying toxic behaviour towards her.

"I couldn't settle myself, and she said to me that I was in no fit state to be working at NZCare anymore and that I needed to go directly to my doctor to put me off for the rest of my time [working there]."

During a meeting with an NZCare manager and external workplace rehabilitation specialist WellNZ, the manager brought up Jane's panic attacks and appeared to blame them on her.

"We had a meeting and she made a comment of 'don't forget to tell her about your panic attacks', so she was trying to put it on me.

"She [WellNZ representative] understood that it wasn't a panic attack due to my assault, that it was a panic attack due to what [NZCare] were doing."

Jane says when she's described her bullying experiences to others, they enter a state of disbelief.

"They're sitting there saying to me 'you're kidding, right', because that can't happen. You wouldn't believe it, no one would believe it, I didn't believe it myself. I thought I was going crazy, I honestly believed it was all in my head, and that's what they did to me. They made me believe it was just me, that I was at fault."

Although Jane is now in a different job, she is now fearful employers are out to get her and is worried she will encounter similar instances again.

"I still have extreme anxiety. Pretty much I try and hold it together while I'm at work, whatever I'm feeling. And the moment I'm home I just let it out… It is something that will be with me for the rest of my life."

"They completely blocked me, they made me feel like it was all my fault, that I was useless… I really, really struggled," Jane told Newshub.
"They completely blocked me, they made me feel like it was all my fault, that I was useless… I really, really struggled," Jane told Newshub.

"I was only there 18 months - that was long enough"

Kate worked for NZCare for 18 months, which she says "was long enough" to experience the workplace's "psychological bullying", "cliques" and "favouritism" towards particular employees from management.

She was warned against working for NZCare by colleagues at the time, she says, and it only took two weeks for her to begin to see how rife bullying was.

Kate alleges fellow employees would approach her to get her to engage in office politics where she had to "pick a side".

"It's like the Hunger Games if you're not in their group. They'd first come to me and try to get me to say things about [my manager]. They'd be all nice but you've got to pick a side, and I didn't pick the side because I was there to do the job with the people," she told Newshub.

She believes those who are in the 'in' cliques are favoured by managers and they play by their own set of rules.

"Overinvolved, controlling, unethical. The things they would do - it's just not consistent. So they would talk about professional boundaries… Then a manager's daughter is taking a client home to have drinks at their house with their family. But that will be denied.

"They do [have a different set of rules for themselves], but they cover it up… But if you're not in there or if you were to come up against them or be seen to, then they will turn."

She says the managers want people they dislike gone, so Kate was stuck and had to either "try and limp along" and stay on their side, or resign.

"It's a big game. If you're not in, you're out, and if you're out, then they're going to keep at you. So you just try to keep out of it but still look like you're doing your job.

"There's a lot of fakeness, it's not genuine unless they can get something out of you or you're in the little clique - who wants to be in that? They're not appropriate."

Kate says she felt uninspired and disheartened while working at NZCare. She adds she's aware no workplace is perfect, but knows previous employers always had good intentions.

"My managers [at NZCare] weren't yelling at me, it was that subversive thing where you know something's going on, it's toxic, you've seen them do it to others but you're not sure."

Her flatmates and family began begging her to leave NZCare, saying she'd changed into someone she wasn't and her passion for the people had gone.

Once she did formally resign in March, Kate wasn't given her final pay and the delay was blamed on COVID-19. She says a manager laughed at her being upset when she didn't receive her pay, but she told them she had a mortgage and bills to pay.

"You say it and it doesn't seem like much, but it's just unprofessional and unacceptable.

"There's bad workplaces and then there's this. It's actually unbelievable."

Kate has entered into mediation with NZCare, but on one occasion they cancelled on her with no explanation.

"I don't want to do this, it would've been easier to pull out. We can all move on and go and get other jobs, but there's lots of people there that they prey on that can't leave."

She's unsure how they get away with bullying, but says they sweep it under the rug, patch over it and deny it. She also doesn't think NZCare expected people to make bullying claims against them.

Kate says NZCare "preaches" inclusivity, but that doesn't match with their actions.

"At the end of the day, I can leave and get out of there and carry on. Those people with disabilities, while there is some reasonable work going on and they're looked after, it's not what is expected. And they can't leave. They're stuck there in their homes. And this company is making money off people with disabilities and not providing the right care and support for staff."

"They're pretty toxic"

Workplace bullying victims' advocate Maryline Suchley, who represents the two former NZCare employees, says what the pair have endured is appalling, but knows there are plenty more employees who are currently going through or have been through similar situations while working there.

"The bullying is pretty horrific, but they're just the ones that have actually had the guts to speak up, but there's plenty of them," she told Newshub.

She says psychological bullying, manipulation, covering up complaints and inaccurate accusations towards victims is common.

"They've created a workplace where everyone is scared and it all comes from a place of fear - fear of losing their job, fear of not getting employment anywhere else… They're pretty toxic."

"Issues raised are taken very seriously"

In a statement the Chief Executive Vanessa Dudley told Newshub staff are supported and encouraged to raise issues through our formal and informal processes.  

She said both HealthCare NZ and NZCare Disability have "an absolute zero tolerance"  towards any form of workplace bullying and harassment. 

"As a company supporting many vulnerable people in our communities, it is important this behaviour is mirrored in how our people treat each other."

She said staff are welcome to confidentially report any issues they experience to specialist human resource advisors, peers and line managers or use the whistleblower process which is directly to a Privacy Officer.  

"Any issues raised are taken very seriously and investigated to identify any problems, find a resolution, and implement any necessary changes and actions. Our Privacy Officer consistently ensures the individual’s privacy and confidentiality is maintained at all times."

Dudley said staff can contact her directly by email about any issues, including bullying and harassment. 

"While we cannot discuss the specific details, we are taking this matter very seriously, and are committed to investigating any specific evidence or examples of workplace bullying that are provided to us," she said. 

"It is important that we fully understand what is claimed to have happened, undertaken a transparent investigation and respond with the appropriate outcome."