‘Hundreds’ of NHS Highland staff affected by bullying

Health secretary announces new whistleblower programme amid claims managers and government could have acted sooner

Thursday 9th May 2019

An independent report into claims there is a culture of bullying at one of Scotland’s health boards has found widespread evidence staff were treated inappropriately, senior management often failed to respond and that leaders in government and the NHS could have acted sooner.

Two-thirds of those responding to the impartial review by John Sturrock QC reported cases of bullying.

The 173-page review also criticises a ‘dysfunctional’ and at times ‘defensive’ style of leadership at the board, which employs more than 10,000 workers.

It goes on to suggest both senior management and the Scottish Government should have been able ‘to act more decisively at an earlier stage.’

In response the Scottish Government has committed to rolling out a national whistleblowing programme and is promising fresh action on employee wellbeing.

John Sturrock QC was asked by the Health Secretary to carry out an independent and impartial investigation into allegations of bullying at the northern health board in September 2018.

During his work the mediation expert spoke to more than 300 staff members, 66% of whom relayed instances of what they described as bullying.

In many cases this was ‘significant, harmful and multi-layered,’ and took place ‘at all staffing levels, and in many geographic areas, disciplines and departments of NHS Highland.’

He went on to say that, although it was ‘possible’ to conclude most Highland workers had not been bullied, ‘it seems equally possible that many hundreds have experienced behaviour which is inappropriate.’

Many staff at the health board are reported as feeling there was ‘no really effective, safe mechanism’ to speak out about their concerns, while a ‘significant number’ were found to have resigned, retired or left the organisation.

Both the Scottish Government and senior management at the board come under criticism for not acting sooner.

In a line opposition parties will likely focus on, the report states: ‘Both the Board and the Scottish Government were, or should have been, sufficiently alerted by developments to act more decisively at an earlier stage.’

Speaking today in the Scottish Parliament, Ms Freeman admitted there was often a ‘dilemma’ about whether the Scottish Government should intervene or support a health board – a point acknowledged by Mr Sturrock in his report.

But Conservative Highlands & Islands MSP Edward Mountain claimed: “It was only the Scottish Government and casual observers that didn’t recognise a serious problem in governance at NHS Highland.”

In addition to supporting NHS Highland locally as it implements the review’s recommendations, the Scottish Government is promising to learn lessons nationally.

The Health Secretary says each health board will have a new ‘whistleblowing champion’ by the end of 2019, with the authority to escalate any concerns directly to central government.

A summit on NHS employee wellbeing, engagement and experience to be held in summer has also been announced, while a taskforce of health leaders, trade unions, and professional and regulatory bodies will consider how to promote ‘an open and honest working environment’.

In a statement, Professor Boyd Robertson, the interim chair of the board, said: “I am very grateful to John Sturrock QC and to everyone who contributed to the compilation of this comprehensive report and I welcome its publication.

“The report presents an ideal opportunity for everyone in NHS Highland to take stock of what more can be done to foster a positive and inclusive culture. Our board will give early consideration to the findings of this report and will ensure that its recommendations are taken forward.

“As Chair of the Board, I undertake to do whatever I can to restore confidence where it may have been lost and to build upon the many examples of best practice which I see every day. Together, I am confident that we can make sure that all of our people feel valued, respected and proud to be part of NHS Highland.”