New questions have emerged over Virgin Australia’s workplace culture after it was revealed the airline’s group medical officer took stress leave from her role at the height of last year’s lockdown before joining rival Qantas.
The Australian reported the details of Sara Souter’s exit alongside revealing that its head of crew culture and head of people operations have also recently left the airline.
The news comes one day after Virgin’s former chief pilot Michael Fitzgerald took legal action against the airline, stating the business violated his workplace rights by terminating his contract while he was on extended sick leave, while simultaneously accusing Jayne Hrdlicka of “bullying and harassment”. Virgin told Australian Aviation it “unequivocally” denies Fitzgerald’s allegations and said it would be “vigorously defending the matter”.
Now, reports say Souter took stress leave from her role just one week after a Virgin cabin crew member tested positive for COVID-19, which at the time sent hundreds of passengers and crew into 14-day quarantine. She never returned to her position, and a few months later took up a role as a medical officer at rival Qantas.
The Australian added that Souter took the extended stress leave after being placed under “intense pressure” by the Virgin CEO in the days after the cabin crew had worked on five flights before testing positive in June 2021.
Souter was reportedly subjected to thrice-daily crisis meetings with Hrdlicka and the senior management team, which is said to have seen the CEO repeatedly question Souter to ensure the outbreak was being handled.
At the same time, staff who were forced to quarantine in hotel rooms were calling Souter and her team for assistance, before a dedicated support hotline was established days later, placing further pressure on the group medical officer.
“Virgin Australia is unable to comment on the specifics of Ms Souter’s employment and departure from Virgin Australia,” a Virgin spokesperson told Australian Aviation.
“What we can say is that operationally, it was a difficult time at Virgin Australia as we worked through the impacts of the initial and subsequent spread of the Delta strain of COVID-19 in Australia, the close contact requirements across various jurisdictions as well as a vaccination requirement put in place by Virgin Australia to keep our people safe.
“A number of our teams were dealing with circumstances we have never encountered before, and we are proud of all of our people for the resilience and incredible hard work put in over this period to ensure the safety of both our guests and our people.”
It joins a number of high-profile departures in the wake of its exit from administration in November 2020, after being purchased by private equity giant Bain Capital for $3.5 billion, which appears to signal a significant shift in Virgin’s corporate culture.
In recent weeks alone, the airline is said to have lost its head of crew culture Ryan Bradshaw after nearly 20 years at the airline, and its head of people operations Jake van der Zalm.
Earlier, in November last year, corporate affairs chief Moksha Watts resigned from her role amid an internal review into her behaviour, after just eight months with the company.
Watts was instated in the role as part of a major management reshuffle in January 2021, just weeks after Bain bought the company out of administration.
Her resignation followed a significant turnover of staff working in her department, including the airline’s sustainability manager, a social media manager, two corporate communications staff and a government relations adviser.
While some staff from the department were reportedly subject to non-disclosure agreements, others spoke out about their recent experiences at the airline, and working under Watts.
Speaking on a LinkedIn post, a former employee said that following the administration and sale of Virgin to Bain Capital, they were “constantly feeling defeated and stressed” and “couldn’t switch off”.
“The stress took a huge toll on me physically and mentally,” the former staffer said.
“You’ve got to pick your battles and I ultimately decided that even my dream job at my dream company wasn’t worth the toll.
“Across the division, the stories were the same – or much worse. Almost every staff member across our departments left.”
Reports suggest that only one person remained in the corporate affairs who was there prior to the sale to Bain Capital.