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Workplace bullies: NHS to boost support for nurse whistleblowers in Scotland

Investigation at NHS Highland revealed staff have faced ‘serious trauma’

Investigation at NHS Highland revealed staff have faced ‘serious trauma’


Picture: John Behets

'Whistleblowing champions' are to be adopted by NHS employers in Scotland after a report into bullying found staff were afraid to speak out.

A review at NHS Highland found many staff have experienced 'serious harm and trauma', driving some to leave their jobs or retire, or have episodes of anxiety, depression, withdrawal, alcohol dependency, drug misuse and even suicidal thoughts.

Hundreds of staff affected

Reviewer John Sturrock QC said it was possible many hundreds of staff had been subjected to inappropriate behaviour, however he stressed that it was not possible to 'conclude there is or is not a bullying culture' in the organisation.

The review team heard from 340 current and former staff, including nurses, of whom 66% described bullying, that was often 'significant, harmful and multi-layered'.

‘It seems clear the treatment of some staff in the past has not always lived up to the high standards expected and, for that, I apologise on behalf of the board’

Iain Stewart, chief executive, NHS Highland

The review states: 'They feel sidelined, criticised, victimised, undermined and ostracised for raising matters of concern. Many described a culture of fear and of protecting the organisation when issues are raised.'

Plans to tackle the problem

NHS Highland is now promising a plan of action in response to the findings.


Norman Provan, associate director
of RCN Scotland

The Scottish government outlined action it would take, including:

  • Whistleblowing champions to promote openness across NHS Scotland where staff can feel confident and supported to raise concerns that would be investigated properly. 
  • Legislation to introduce an independent national whistleblowing officer for NHS Scotland, with authority to investigate the handling of whistleblowing complaints and make recommendations to the Scottish Parliament.
  • A minister-led working group with representation from NHS boards, unions, the Royal Colleges, professional bodies and regulators will now look at improving workplace cultures.

'Change the culture'

The RCN said the review findings were 'a wake-up call' for the NHS Highland’s board to take its staff seriously.

RCN Scotland associate director Norman Provan said NHS Highland had a 'difficult problem' to regain the trust of its staff and said its new chief executive had to oversee a significant and far-reaching change in culture. 

Chief executive Iain Stewart said: 'It seems clear the treatment of some staff in the past has not always lived up to the high standards expected and, for that, I apologise on behalf of the board.'


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