“It was a difficult time”: Virgin responds to toxic workplace claims as group medical officer departs

More questions have been raised about Virgin Australia’s workplace culture after it was revealed the airline’s group medical officer reportedly took stress leave from her position at the height of the Delta lockdown before joining Qantas.

The departure of the airline’s former group medical officer, Sara Souter, came alongside the exit of Virgin’s head of crew culture and head of people operations, according to The Australian.

This news comes after the airline’s former chief pilot, Michael Fitzgerald, took legal action against the airline, arguing that his workplace rights were violated when his contract was terminated while he was on extended sick leave.

Fitzgerald also accused the Virgin CEO, Jayne Hrdlicka, of “bullying and harassment” in a fair works claim against the carrier, which the airline has rigorously denied.

Souter reportedly took stress leave a week after a Virgin cabin crew member tested positive for COVID-19, which then sent hundreds of passengers and crew into 14-day quarantine, according to Australian Aviation.

She did not return after her leave and later took a job at Qantas.

Souter’s extended stress leave was after she was 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, The Australian reported.

The former group medical officer was reportedly subjected to thrice daily meetings with the senior management team and Hrdlicka, where the CEO reportedly questioned Souter about how the outbreak was being handled.

Souter and her team were being called for assistance by staff who were forced to quarantine, before a dedicated hotline was established a few days later, putting more pressure on the former 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.”

Virgin Australia put out a statement on Friday in response to recent reports about culture at Virgin Australia.

“Of course, culture is a complex issue that is felt differently by different people,” the statement said.

“Everyone who was an employee of Virgin Australian at the start of 2020 has experienced a very difficult and emotional time.

“From the lows of the uncertainty of voluntary administration and stand-downs to the highs of being purchased by Bain Capital, who provided a lifeline to get us back on our feet.

“Our employees had to give a lot through this difficult period, as many people did, and unfortunately a large number of roles were made redundant when we no longer had sufficient work for people to do.”

Australian Aviation reported that following the purchase of Virgin by Bain Capital, a former employee said in a LinkedIn post that 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.