The National Mental Health Commission is a bin fire

4 minute read

The worst workplace culture in the APS, a $6.2 million operating loss, and no annual report since 2021. Fail.

The National Mental Health Commission is a bin fire looking for a firefighter, according to the report from an independent investigation headed by Adjunct Professor Debora Picone AO and Adjunct Professor Karen Crawshaw PSM.

Federal Health Minister Mark Butler commissioned the report in April after revelations published in the Saturday Paper alleging financial irregularities, dysfunction and workplace bullying. The report was tabled in Parliament late last week.

Professors Picone and Crawshaw didn’t hold their punches in the report, describing the NMHC as having a “very poor workplace culture” with a projected net operating loss of $6.2 million thanks to overspending in key areas of employee costs, service contracts and travel expenses.

CEO Christine Morgan, who led the NMHC since 2019, stood aside in April after the media reports, and officially resigned earlier this month, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

In the only piece of good news for the NMHC, the report authors said they “did not receive information that would substantiate a finding of bullying or which would warrant further attention”.

What they did hear was deeply troubling, however.

“Many staff reported claims of matters that would fall under the category of a psychologically unsafe workplace, citing examples of poorly controlled psychosocial risks such as a disempowering authorising environment and lack of devolved budgets, lack of role clarity, poor internal communication of key strategic directions and resource allocation decisions, and a lack of cohesion and unity of the Commission’s Executive,” said the report.

Despite the NMHC’s core function of producing an annual report on mental health and suicide prevention to the government and community, it has failed to produce such a report since the 2021 National Report, published in 2022.

The $6.2 million operating loss could be attributed to “actual expenses surpassing the budget in key areas of employee costs, service contracts and travel expenses”, said Professors Piccone and Crawshaw.

“The National Workplace Initiative project is the main driver of the service contracts overspend of $2.7 million [and] the overspend of $3.2 million for employee expenses is due to the Commission operating with a staffing profile above the currently funded Average Staffing Levels.”

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In short, the report found an organisation that had “outgrown its existing systems, practices and capabilities”.

“These have not kept pace with expansion, at the direction of the then Government, of the Commission’s scope, policy development activities and accompanying budget allocation in recent years.”

The report made recommendations in five domains: governance, workplace culture, financial management, organisational structure, and capability and capacity.

Big-ticket recommendations included:

  • A more structure approach to governance.
  • An enhanced advisory board.
  • The immediate employment of another director of lived experience.
  • Alternative data sources and engage with state and territory governments to make informed decisions and to prevent redundant work around local community engagement.
  • Possible separation of the NMHC from the National Suicide Prevention Office.
  • Routine monitoring of the performance of the Commission in terms of workplace culture and workplace health and safety.
  • A standard set of human resources indicators including those relating to vacancy rates, staff turnover, unplanned absences/sick leave, incidence of stress leave, number of workplace health and safety-related notifications and investigations, workers compensation claims experience, complaints about bullying, harassment or other inappropriate workplace conduct, and grievance prevalence and time to resolution, be developed.
  • High-level human resources expertise and advice on controlling psychological risks in the workplace should be obtained.
  • Given the Commission’s leadership role in the mental health sector, it is incumbent on the Commission to move to be a model employer in terms of a mentally healthy workplace.
  • A process, overseen by the Department of Health and Aged Care, should be established to consider and manage reports of sub-optimal or uncomfortable interactions in the workplace.
  • The Commission undertake budget planning and ongoing budget management to reduce costs and enable the Commission to operate within its appropriation.
  • Finalising the Procurement Guide and facilitate training and awareness sessions to uplift staff capability in procurement and grant processes as well as the recent updates to the Commission’s procurement process.
  • Clarifying its position on authorising business class travel for persons travelling with the chief executive who would not ordinarily be entitled to business class travel.
  • As a matter of urgency, the Commission should: finalise the development of the Corporate Plan 2023-27; develop a work plan for 2023-24; and develop program plans with budget allocations according to 2023-24 Portfolio Budget Statement outcomes.

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