‘Reason to hope’ in face of workplace bullying

Leading University of Otago medical researcher Dr Ayesha Verrall has spoken out against workplace bullying and abuse in the legal profession, and sees some "reason to hope" from changing attitudes.

"At this moment it is apparent that bullies have been enabled by the silence of the decent majority.

"We need to show that it is safe to come forward if you’re uncomfortable.

Medical researcher Dr Ayesha Verrall gives the University of Otago graduation address on Saturday.
Medical researcher Dr Ayesha Verrall gives the University of Otago graduation address on Saturday.
"We need to take constructive action when we suspect someone is being victimised," Dr Verrall said.

Dr Verrall, an Otago medical graduate, was  addressing more than 320 graduates, in all academic disciplines, who graduated from the university in a ceremony at the Dunedin Town Hall at 3pm on Saturday.

Often graduation speakers advised graduates on how they could succeed in their work, and suggested they should be creative and take risks.

"But this year we heard of four young women whose dreams of a legal career were crushed by an abusive firm.

"How empty such advice must sound to them and to the other men and women across various industries subjected to unacceptable behaviour at work," Dr Verrall said.

"No-one can be themselves when the workplace is hostile.

"We need to be intellectual leaders in identifying practices that protect victims as well as due process."

It would be wrong to put the responsibility for making the necessary changes on the latest Otago graduates, but this generation did give her "reason for hope".

Dr Verrall’s mother grew up in a house with a dirt floor in the Maldives, a group of tiny islands in the Indian Ocean, and had been supported by an aunt after her own mother  died of fever.

Nevertheless, Dr Verrall’s mother became the first person in her country to pass Cambridge examinations in English and to study in New Zealand on a Colombo Plan scholarship.

Her mother later married a New Zealander and taught in Southland. Dr Verrall was born in Invercargill.

She said her work as a doctor had been to  reduce the impact infectious diseases had on families like her mother’s.

Her PhD research was on families of people with tuberculosis in Indonesia, where the disease could be "devastating for families both in terms of their health and the catastrophic costs of care".

The team she led found that, in a study of 1300 people, a quarter of individuals living with a Tb patient remained uninfected, "despite prolonged exposure to Tb in tiny cramped houses".

She was investigating if the people who remained uninfected could provide a "template of protection from Tb", which could ultimately be "for everyone’s benefit".

Dr Verrall is a former Otago University Students Association president and is a senior lecturer in the department of pathology and molecular medicine at Otago University’s Wellington campus.

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