Embattled boss won’t go on leave

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Bente Mikkelsen, head of the embattled state health agency that’s pushing through a controversial hospital reorganization in Oslo, has dropped plans to take off for five months in Rome, to attend a leadership course. While many of Mikkelsen’s opponents think she does need more leadership training, their fury sunk her plans for an all-expenses-paid absence.

Doctors and nurses at Oslo's biggest hospital had already lost confidence in regional health care boss Bente Mikkelsen when it became known that she planned to take off on a lengthy paid leave, in the midst of Oslo's controversial hospital merger. Her plans to go on leave prompted charges of poor judgment and insensitivity. PHOTO: Helse Sør-Øst/Aud Ingebjørg Heldaas

Mikkelsen, managing director of health agency Helse Sør-Øst, was defending her decision to head off on paid leave in the midst of the hospital controversy as late as Monday morning, telling newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) that “there’s never a good time to be away, but I have evaluated that it’s okay now … ”

By midday on Monday, she clearly had changed her mind. “I evaluate the situation around my leave such that it’s not been understood, and is creating unnecessary unease around the management of Helse Sør-Øst,” Mikkelsen wrote in a letter to Helse Sør-Øst chairman Frode Alhaug.

He had earlier supported Mikkelsen’s decision to take off on leave, but told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Monday that there were “several uncomfortable reactions” to the leave plans. “This (her decision to drop the leave plans) was thus a sensible evaluation,” Alhaug told nrk.no. “She doesn’t think it’s very nice to travel to such a course when it’s viewed so negatively.”

Mikkelsen has already been the target of massive criticism from doctors, nurses and management at some of Oslo’s biggest hospitals who have complained bitterly for many months over how their reorganization is being conducted. Many have accused Mikkelsen of lacking understanding of how a painful merger process is affecting their work situation and patient care.

The huge budget cuts demanded by the merger are also forcing staff reorganization, potential job losses and, ironically enough, less funding for courses and continuing education. Mikkelsen’s decision to take off herself, with full pay, for five months to attend a “senior course” at the NATO Defense College in Rome unleashed a new torrent of complaints about Mikkelsen, and her alleged lack of sensitivity and judgment.

“A good skipper doesn’t leave the wheel when it’s storming the worst,” Dr Aasmund Bredeli, the top representative for the doctors at what’s now called Oslo University Hospital (Oslo Universitetssykehus, OUS), told newspaper Aftenposten on Monday. “I doubt any other business or organization would have accepted that the top leader takes off where there are such huge changes that demand so much of all the employees.”

Mikkelsen isn’t the first though, with the head of dairy monopoly Tine, Hanne Refsholt, off on leave during the recent butter shortage. She took off, though, before the so-called “butter crisis” erupted.

Several politicians have also joined the chorus of critics against Mikkelsen, but she had remained firm in her desire to spend five months in Rome to acquire “professional renewal and leadership development.” She had also told DN that Helse Sør-Øst had “good and solid management” that could take over in her absence and that “nothing depends on one person. I think this will be fine. And it’s just Rome – if anything happens, I’m not so far away.”

Helse Sør-Øst had actually issued a short press release about Mikkelsen’s plans to take leave, just before the Christmas holidays, in which Alhaug had claimed he was “positive and proud” that Mikkelsen was one of the few accepted into the NATO program, that’s supposed to teach leaders how to handle complex systems and build consensus. He also said that Helse Sør-Øst’s board was confident that their managing director could “become even more clever to lead the work to the develop the health region.”

It took a while before local media picked up the press release, with Drammens Tidende first writing about it late last week. Not only was Mikkelsen being granted five months of leave from her job, but the state would continue to pay her salary and pay for her tuition, travel, room and board. That was estimated to cost NOK 350,000.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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