'Toxic work environment' plagues National Microbiology Lab: workplace report

Scientists and staff at Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory are doing ground-breaking, life-saving research, but they’re doing it in a “toxic work environment” with a “significant lack of trust” between employees and their managers, according to a recent workplace health assessment report.

Union calls for removal of 'problem' management after report highlights administrative staff concerns

An independent workplace health assessment report found leadership tone is a contributor to both mistrust and conflict in the National Microbiology Lab. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Administrative staff at Canada's National Microbiology Laboratory are helping to facilitate ground-breaking, life-saving research — but they're doing it in a "toxic work environment" with a "significant lack of trust" between employees and their managers, according to a recent workplace health assessment report.

The report, submitted to the Public Health Agency of Canada in June 2019 by Toronto-based workplace conflict specialist Blaine Donais, focused on non-scientific administrative employees involved in procurement, information management, travel, human resources, finances, asset management and logistics.

Those employees make up just under 10 per cent of the workforce of the National Microbiology Lab, which includes five locations in Canada. One of the two NML labs in Winnipeg is Canada's only Level 4 lab — one capable of handling the most deadly infectious diseases, including Ebola.

After reviewing the report's findings, the union that represents federal laboratory workers and scientists is denouncing what it says is a unilateral management process.

In an email to Kimberly Elmslie, vice-president of the Public Health Agency of Canada's infectious disease prevention and control branch, the union called for "problem manager/s" to be "removed permanently from the workplace."

"We need to get to the root causes of the systemic harassment, bullying and fear of reprisals," Todd Panas, national president of the Union of Health and Environment Workers, told CBC News.

"The issues at the [National Microbiology Lab] are systemic and will not be improved without serious changes at the senior management ranks."

The report identified several  significant concerns, including:

  • Conflict management.
  • Timely information/communication on changes that impact how work is done.
  • Manager and employee trust.
  • Communication.
  • Accountability for actions.
  • Fit of staff hired/promoted and a lack of transparency in the process.
  • Disruptions/interruptions in workflow.

"Leadership tone is a contributor to both mistrust and conflict in this workplace," reads the report, which was obtained by CBC News through an access to information request.

"This is not a workplace where everyone feels safe to raise issues and have an expectation that there will be some follow-up."

There is a … view that staffing decisions are either made out of favouritism or out of desperation.- Blaine Donais

Significant parts of the report obtained by CBC were redacted, including specific areas where "extreme expressions of distrust" were reported.

The report was based on a voluntary survey, which was conducted in November 2018 and filled out by 79 per cent of the staff, and on individual interviews at the labs in Winnipeg and Guelph conducted in early 2019. There were also two-hour group discussions in Winnipeg.

Donais notes some employees made a deliberate decision not to participate.

One of the common threads in the report was frustration and problems with workflow when Public Health Agency of Canada staff in Ottawa make decisions unilaterally and without explanation, or impose policies that don't make sense in the labs.

No one from the Public Health Agency or the National Microbiology Lab was made available for an interview.


However, PHAC provided a written statement saying in part that the report identified both strengths and weaknesses and provides "a solid assessment" on which management, employees and the union can address the recommendations.

In his report into workplace health at the National Microbiology Lab, Blaine Donais made 58 recommendations, many dealing with how leadership can rebuild trust. (Workplace Fairness Institute)

Management accountability was also a recurring concern in the report, including favouritism and uneven treatment of staff.

"There is a [redacted] view that staffing decisions are either made out of favouritism or out of desperation," Donais wrote.

Scientists are seen by administrative employees as having "different rules," especially when it comes to expense reporting requirements, the report says.

Some of the people on the lab side also have a reputation for being disrespectful, pushy and inconsiderate of the roles played by other employees. The report notes there is an increasingly fine line between disrespectful behaviour and harassment in workplace law.

There is little acknowledgement of the contribution of the NML's administrative side to the success of the science side, the report found, a "serious red flag" that needs to be addressed. 

Donais noted that 21.8 per cent of the employees in the NML's program services division indicated they are currently experiencing mental health challenges that could affect their productivity.

He found the logistics division is "clearly a work group that is in serious trouble."

Dozens of recommendations and practical ideas made by staff in individual interviews have been redacted from the report.

Rebuilding trust 

In his report, Donais makes 58 recommendations, many dealing with how leadership can rebuild trust. 

Staff meetings alone are not enough, his report says — more significant contact with NML managers in Ottawa and the Public Health Agency's vice-president are required.

Exit interviews with employees leaving the lab should also be conducted by an independent and impartial agent, Donais said.

"Many have expressed concerns that recent departures of staff were because of the toxic work environment," he wrote.

I'm not at all optimistic or confident that these recommendations will do anything to … eliminate the systemic issues at the NML.- Todd Panas, Union of Health and Environment Workers

The president of the Union of Health and Environment Workers says the report was "overly vetted" by senior management before being distributed, and says it does not call for any accountability by management.

"I'm very disappointed in the format of the report, the lack of transparency on Mr. Donais's analysis and not identifying the root causes," Panas wrote in an Oct. 2 email to the Public Health Agency's Elmslie, which was forwarded to CBC News.

"I'm not at all optimistic or confident that these recommendations will do anything to improve morale, the workplace or eliminate the systemic issues at the NML or within the agency."

In her response, Elmslie says she welcomes the collaboration of the union in developing an action plan, and says she'll take it to the next branch-union management committee meeting.

Meanwhile, in a separate report from March 2017 — also obtained through an access to information request — the federal ombudsman's office responded to "general concerns about workplace culture" at the Winnipeg lab.

After discussions with staff, the report categorized systemic issues in four areas: a culture of retaliation, concerns about management behaviour, hiring practices and questions around scientific integrity.

The remainder of the report was completely redacted.

Possible policy breach under investigation

Donais's report was conducted before an RCMP investigation into what's being described by the Public Health Agency of Canada as a possible "policy breach" at Winnipeg's Level 4 lab, where two scientists and their students from China had their security access revoked in July.

Dr. Xiangguo Qiu works in Level 4 containment at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg in this file photo. Her security access was revoked in July. (CBC)

That investigation involving Xiangguo Qiu — a scientist originally from Tianjin, China, who helped develop ZMapp at the NML — and her husband, Keding Cheng, is ongoing.

Earlier this year, Qiu sent live samples of the Ebola and Henipah viruses to Beijing, raising questions about whether intellectual property protocols were properly followed.

The Public Health Agency will not confirm if the shipment is part of the RCMP investigation. 

Staff at the Winnipeg lab say they have been told very little about why Qiu and Cheng were removed from the lab. Management has also told them not to talk to the media.