Deteriorating Working Conditions in the VA Hospital System: Insights from Federal Employees at their Recent Union Conference — Viviola Gómez Ortiz, PhD & Peter Schnall, MD, MPH

Working on Empty” (WOE) is a multimedia project on how the U.S. workplace is making Americans sick and what must change to protect the health of our workforce.

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We were recently invited to give a workshop on work, stress and health at the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) national union conference held in Las Vegas in June. We attended the conference and conducted 2-hour workshops on Wednesday and Thursday, of the week of June 12th-16th. The workshops provided us with an opportunity to discuss working conditions with Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital workers (the main constituents of AFGE), as well as union organizers. We also were able to show them our 11-minute Working on Empty film teaser and get their feedback and suggestions.

The most eye-opening and upsetting part of our workshops for us (as workshop organizers) involved the extended discussions with workshop participants about deteriorating working conditions in the VA hospital system. Interested readers can find a number of recent stories online about what is happening at the VA hospitals (e.g.: CBS News article, April 2017). Participants detailed a long list of worsening work problems at the VA hospitals: lack of funds and understaffing, computer monitoring of employee keystrokes, suspensions for underperformance, lack of clear policies about handling work, poor management*, bullying, forced overtime, workers being turned against co-workers, and more. It was gut-wrenching and depressing to hear the litany of problems, errors, and exploitation of workers.

We can’t help wondering if the deteriorating quality of work for these VA hospital workers could be related to the worsening healthcare for our veterans?
*”Epidemic of VA Mismanagement” in the U.S. map, The American Legion via VOX

It appears that the deterioration in the quality of care at the VA Hospital system is the direct result of underfunding and mismanagement. We do not believe that the problems with healthcare are the result of its being a “public” system, but the result of conscious decisions to save money by decreasing resources — a government policy of neglect of our veterans which has been well documented for many years. (Richard Campbell, “The VA Medical Care System Facing “Cutbacks” and “Decline,”” J. of Health and Human Resources Administration, Feb 1981.)

…the film we presented helped them to not feel alone in their workplace struggles…

Workshop participants shared with us that the film we presented helped them to not feel alone in their workplace struggles, having witnessed in the film other working people raising similar issues to the ones they were experiencing. They asked for more information on why work was changing and deteriorating and more on why management was so negative toward workers, which they found both incomprehensible and counterproductive. They believed that the negativity from management leads to even more negative outcomes and further decreased worker productivity. We (the workshop organizers) came away with a number of ideas provided by workers on ways to improve the film; in particular they suggested providing more time for workers’ accounts of their work, as well as including in the film a discussion about the reasons why management(s) act as they do.

We invite working people from every background to view our 11-minute film at workingonempty.org and take a few minutes to send us your thoughts on how it might be improved.

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With your help, we will have created more than hope — we’ll have cemented lasting, positive change in the name of healthy working conditions.

Viviola Gómez Ortiz, Ph.D. is a psychologist and an Associate Professor at the Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, Colombia. Her research focuses on psychology and health, and stress-related issues — especially working conditions and work-family relations and their impact on the health of working people. Her published research includes a recent article: “Working Conditions and Effort-Reward Imbalance in Latin America” in the new book Work Stress and Health in a Globalized Economy. Ed. Johannes Siegrist, Ed. Morten Wahrendorf. Switzerland: Springer, 2016. 235–271. (CV, LinkedIn)

Peter Schnall M.D., M.P.H. is a Clinical Professor of Medicine at University of California, Irvine’s Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine (COEH), as well as the Director of the Center for Social Epidemiology (CSE). Peter is an expert and active researcher on the role of occupational stress in causing hypertension and cardiovascular disease (CVD), and has a long-standing interest in the role that work organizations and psychosocial stressors play in the development of obesity, hypertension and other CVD risk factors. (LinkedIn, Twitter)