Many staff members at state psychiatric facilities in Middletown feel bullied when they’re on the job, pressured to take overtime shifts and lack confidence in their managers, according to a survey of employees at Connecticut Valley and Whiting Forensic hospitals in Middletown.
“There’s clearly something going on,” said Sara Wakai, an assistant professor in UConn Health’s Department of Medicine who presented the survey to the CVH Whiting Task Force on Friday. Wakai told the task force members to draw their own conclusions from the survey so they can make recommendations to the legislature, but she said there is much to be done to improve conditions at the hospitals.
“It has to be a full court press,” she said. “You can’t just say, ‘We’re just going to do one thing,’ and magically … the climate’s going to change.”
The survey was conducted by UConn Health between March 15 and 31, 2021. About 27% of employees — 417 of 1,518 — participated.
“We wanted to ensure people who worked there had a confidential way to communicate their concerns,” said Michael Lawlor, task force co-chair. “The clear picture has emerged that they feel they’re short-staffed and under-resourced, there is a lot of pressure on the people who work there, and not a lot of confidence in the senior management.”
Just 22% of people agreed with the statement, “I have confidence in the abilities of management in my organization.” Half said management didn’t value constructive criticism, 46% said management “exploits their position of power,” and almost 70% said management didn’t consult staff before making a decision that affects them.
Most, however, said they respect their direct supervisor and feel they treat them with respect.
Bullying was pervasive. Almost 90% of those who responded reported experiencing some form of bullying within the past six months, including being treated in a rude or disrespectful way, not getting information they needed or being ignored or excluded.
About one out of 10 respondents said they experienced threats of violence or physical abuse by a fellow employee during the past six months. Eight percent of those who took the survey said they experienced actual violence or abuse.
“Although these numbers may be small, to go to work and experience violence or physical abuse, or threat of violence or physical abuse, is something to be aware of,” said Wakai.
One person wrote in the survey that “Management continues to bully staff, maintain a hostile work environment, retaliate against staff for voicing concerns, and generally does not respect staff or the work we do.”
Dr. John Rodis, a task force member and former president of St. Francis Hospital, said he was particularly struck by the bullying and its effect on morale, which one survey respondent said was at an “all-time low.” He said he was concerned by employees feeling like they’re “walking on eggshells,” that they’re treated rudely and disrespectfully.
“I’ve seen bad survey results of my employees, and we’ve taken actions, but they don’t look like this,” Rodis said. “I think this is not a health care issue. This is really a Whiting and CVH issue.”
More than 75% of those who responded said it was common to be short-staffed. But less than half thought it was hard to get time off, or that their unit used temporary staff too often.
“Voluntary overtime is not always really voluntary,” Wakai said. “Sometimes they are volunteering so that they don’t get mandated into a shift that just isn’t going to work for them.”
Lawlor reiterated points he has made before: that state leaders should start planning for a new hospital to replace Whiting, and that officials should consider investing resources in front-end community supports so people with addictions and serious mental health conditions don’t wind up at Whiting in the first place.
“There’s not enough staff, and there’s too many patients in that facility,” Lawlor said of Whiting.
There were limitations to the survey, Wakai said. For one, less than one-third of CVH and Whiting employees responded. And the survey was simply a “snapshot” in time, taken during the pandemic.
No demographic groups were unrepresented in the survey, Wakai said, but Black and male employees were potentially under-represented. About 40% of respondents were non-Hispanic white, 18% were non-Hispanic Black, and 6% were Hispanic, a breakdown similar to the workforce, except that Black staff make up 37% of the hospitals’ employees.
Nevertheless, almost one-fifth of employees reported feeling discriminated against at work because of their race.
Not all of the survey results were negative, Wakai said. More than 80% said they liked their work, and half said it gave them a feeling of personal accomplishment. Most know what is expected of them and respect their supervisors.
“I think they care about the job, and they care about patients,” said Wakai.