Two tragic deaths at Auckland Council brings a call to improve staff mental wellbeing

The tragic deaths of two Auckland Council employees has contributed to calls for deep-seated culture changes to support the mental wellbeing of staff.

Jenny Gargiulo, a principal environment specialist, died on December 1 amid claims she had been bullied and harassed. The coroner is looking into her death, which a spokesman said was suspected to be self-inflicted.

A few days later, a member of the council leisure team lost his life in a similar tragic way. The two deaths are unrelated.

Shortly after the two deaths, new chief executive Jim Stabback commissioned a review into the mental and emotional wellbeing of nearly 7000 staff who work at the council.

Stabback today said the scale and intensity of the last year, including the two deaths, led to the review by senior staff that included interviews with staff and union involvement. It was independently reviewed by Debbie Francis, who reviewed bullying and harassment of staff at Parliament.

The report, released today to staff and publicly, found most staff get the support they need at the council, but this is not the case for some staff who have to deal with a heavy workload, unreasonable behaviour, ongoing structural change and leadership failings.

It found there was an “old school” view of mental wellbeing as a “nice to have” and a soft add-on.

“Although the circumstances that gave rise to this review have been difficult and confronting, the review presents a unique opportunity to develop a culture that fosters hauora (wellbeing) within Auckland Council,” said the review.

Stabback is vowing to lift the way the council deals with and supports the mental wellbeing of staff from acceptable to exemplary.

The review team found change will require significant and deep-seated changes to aspects of the council’s workplace culture – and “unwavering ownership and promotion” by Stabback, senior leaders and elected representatives.

It also found some staff may find the changes “insurmountable” and suggested that resistance to treating the mental wellbeing of staff as paramount be treated as a performance measure.

The review also follows a recent Herald investigation which found a manager has moved on following complaints she bullied staff and allegations of a “toxic culture” within her team.

The Herald has spoken to four alleged victims, whose stories share a pattern of being screamed at and abused by the manager, felt let down by management and leaving the council with negotiated exits.

To rub salt into the wound for her alleged victims, the woman did not leave the council altogether. She left her managerial role and was appointed to a part-time job paid by the council.

Before leaving the council, the manager received not one, but two farewells at a cost of $1837 to ratepayers.

The review found a lack of trust by some staff in the council’s ‘Speak Up’ process, which is being reviewed, and the need to support staff when dealing with elected representatives who can sometimes “treat staff with disdain and contempt”, according to one contributor.

Areas where staff are likely to encounter unacceptable behaviour include animal management, pest and weed management, tree issues, swimming pools, dealing with aggressive members of the public, and attending forums dealing with contentious issues, particularly for junior staff.

Among the recommendations were to ensure staff feel safe and supported, and protect them from antisocial and aggressive behaviour.

Stabback told the Herald the council is going to take on a set of recommendations that are bold and challenging, but said some of the changes will take time to implement.

Areas to focus on, he said, included workplace culture, leadership capability, dealing with poor behaviour and building trust in the council’s ‘Speak Up’ channels. A staff-led wellbeing challenger group is also being set up.

“I’m confident we will be better for it and our people will feel well supported in terms of their health, safety and wellbeing,” he said.

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