In a recent article for The Guardian newspaper, Denis Campbell and Matthew Weaver highlight an independent investigative report finding that British National Health Service workers “who blow the whistle on substandard and dangerous practices are being ignored, bullied or even intimidated in a ‘climate of fear.'”
The investigation, led by Sir Robert Francis QC at the request of the Health Secretary, “reveal[s] how staff who have sounded the alarm about dangerous practices have found themselves shunned, suspended and sacked by hospital bosses instead of having their concerns taken seriously.”
Campbell and Weaver quoted Francis in a BBC interview, acknowledging the severe human costs of this retaliation:
“I’ve spoken to people who have not only lost their jobs, their livelihood, they’ve not been able to find other jobs to do. And I’m afraid in some cases have felt suicidal and become ill as a result.”
According to the official report website (which provides links to the executive summary and full report), Francis “sets out 20 Principles and Actions which aim to create the right conditions for NHS staff to speak up, share what works right across the NHS and get all organisations up to the standard of the best and provide redress when things go wrong in future.”
These include fostering a healthier organizational culture, better handling of individual complaints, and stronger legal protections.
This report reinforces at least five lessons about whistleblowing, workplace bullying, and workplace retaliation:
First, even in a nation with more extensive worker protections, including some that address workplace bullying, bullying and intimidation are significant problems. The U.K. generally has been ahead of the U.S. in recognizing workplace bullying through its legal and labor dispute resolution systems, but the problems continue to exist.
Second, this is one more example of the heavy prices that some whistleblowers pay for raising concerns about improper, illegal, and/or unethical behavior. Workplace bullying is a common form of retaliation for whistleblowing.
Third, Francis’s observations about the effects of severe, bullying-type behaviors on individuals validates what we’ve known for years about the human costs of sustained, targeted work abuse. This includes the possibility of suicidal ideation.
Fourth, this underscores ongoing concerns about bullying behaviors in the health care sector, something we know a lot about here in the United States. Health care workers too often toil in stressed out, hostile, and bullying work environments.
Finally, the report’s recommendations remind us that reform and problem solving must be a multifaceted endeavor. This includes broader questions of organizational culture, specific measures and best practices, and effective legal protections.