Helene Donnelly: celebrate as well as protect whistleblowers

New draft regulations provide protection to whistleblowers seeking jobs in the NHS. This is welcome, but without cultural change staff who raise concerns still risk damaging their career, says Mid Staffs whistleblower Helene Donnelly.

New draft regulations provide protection to whistleblowers seeking jobs in the NHS. This is welcome, but without cultural change staff who raise concerns still risk damaging their career, says Mid Staffs whistleblower Helene Donnelly

Job applicants with a history of raising concerns may be viewed with suspicion by employers. Picture: iStock  

From my own experience and conversations with many other NHS whistleblowers, I am acutely aware of the fear that can consume you before and after raising concerns. Many NHS staff believe that they will lose their job, or at the very least be prevented from progressing in their career if they speak out.

There are grounds for these fears. Many of the NHS staff who contributed to the Freedom to Speak Up Review in 2015 had felt discriminated against when seeking employment, because they had previously made a protected disclosure.


The review also found evidence of blacklisting of whistleblowers in the NHS. This clearly has to stop. The government is consulting about proposed plans to protect from discrimination NHS job applicants who have previously made, or appear to have made, a protected disclosure under the Employment Rights Act 1996.

The consultation document states that ‘the overarching intent is to make clear that discrimination against whistleblowers seeking jobs or posts with certain NHS employers is prohibited; that the individual applicants have a legal recourse should they feel they have been discriminated against; and to help embed in NHS bodies a culture that supports workers to raise concerns and welcomes new workers who have done so in the past’.

Step forward

This is a welcome step forward. However, regulations can only go so far. There is one obvious problem with the proposed protection: how will an individual prove they are being discriminated against because they have previously made a protected disclosure? Organisations are not likely to declare this to be the reason they have not appointed a candidate.

The potential cost of legal advice and representation is another concern. Taking legal action against an NHS organisation is a daunting prospect for anyone, particularly if you are not working. I hope that unions will offer assistance with this.

If these barriers are not addressed, they could prevent individuals from taking their case to a tribunal or beyond.

This new protection should act as a deterrent to organisations that have discriminated against individuals for legitimately raising concerns at work. However, the regulations will not succeed without true cultural change throughout the NHS. Without such change, their impact will be limited and may not reach those who need it most.

Acknowledge the problem

A thorough top to bottom approach is required to change negative, outdated attitudes towards those who raise concerns in the NHS.

Sadly, in some areas a culture still exists that at best ignores and at worst vilifies those who are brave and conscientious enough to speak up when things are not right. Organisations should acknowledge when there is a problem and use it as an opportunity to learn and improve so that we can all deliver the best, safest possible care to our patients. 

Alongside the proposed regulations, individuals who raise concerns and organisations that do the right thing should be praised and celebrated as an example to others.

Only by celebrating good practice and weeding out those who fail to respond positively to these changes will we be in a position to move forward with a safer NHS.

About the author




Helene Donnelly OBE is a nurse practitioner, Ambassador for Cultural Change and Freedom to Speak Up guardian

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