Nurses tell of intimidation and bullying at Scottish board

The nurse was one of hundreds who gave evidence to an investigation carried out by John Sturrock QC into allegations of workplace bullying and harassment in NHS Highland.

“When I asked her if she felt bullied, she burst into tears and left”

Sturrock report 

Mr Sturrock, whose review was prompted after concerns were raised by whistleblowing clinicians, yesterday published his findings in an extensive report.

It found that, out of 340 staff who spoke to the review team, 66% reported experiences of what they described as bullying, which was often “significant, harmful and multi-layered”.

Employees of all levels of seniority left the organisation as a direct result of the ill treatment and many had been left suffering from severe mental health problems, the inquiry found. 

The report determined that the existing system for whistleblowing at NHS Highland was not functioning effectively and that many staff felt too “afraid” to speak out about their concerns.

While stopping short of labelling the board as having a bullying culture, the report said it was likely that many hundreds of staff had experienced “inappropriate” behaviour at work. 

“Themes emerged for staff who feel they are not valued, not respected, not supported in carrying out very stressful work and not listened to regarding patient safety concerns, with decisions made behind closed doors,” the report said.

“They feel sidelined, criticised, victimised, undermined and ostracised for raising matters of concern,” it said. “Many described a culture of fear and of protecting the organisation when issues are raised.”

Scottish government

Jeane Freeman

Source: Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament

Jeane Freeman

The document gave a glimpse of the personal experiences of nurses at the board.

One nurse told how she felt marginalised by a clique of nursing staff. 

“A wee group including charge nurses, other nurses, auxiliaries etc. treated [me] badly, talking behind [my] back, being unkind, using harsh tone, questioning [me] in front of patients,” the nurse said. 

“[I was] not made to feel part of the group,” they said. “Felt intimidated, undermined, disregarded, ill-informed and that [I] was a scapegoat for all the ward’s ills.”

Another nurse reported how many “good people” in the organisation had not spoken up, because the system was not supportive of those who raised concerns.

One senior nurse told the investigation team how senior management were “not physically present” and that things were “done to you and not with you”, with regards to frontline staff.

“I undertake to do whatever I can to restore confidence where it may have been lost”

Boyd Robertson

The report described how a bank auxiliary nurse was treated in a “derogatory manner” by ward nurses 50% of the time.

When the auxiliary nurse raised the matter with senior nurses, they excused the behaviour as being “down to stress” and did not tackle it robustly.

The review team even witnessed a manager being bullied by one of their nurses.

“This manager was accommodating the nurse’s availability only and then scheduling everyone else around that one nurse,” the report noted. “When I asked her if she felt bullied, she burst into tears and left.”

The investigation determined that many of the problems in the health board were down to failures in management and leadership.

In response to the report, NHS Highland said it was committed to ensuring lessons were learnt and would prepare an action plan for implementing the changes required.

Iain Stewart, chief executive of the board, apologised to staff who had been treated badly.

Professor Boyd Robertson, its interim chair, added that the board would ensure Mr Sturrock’s recommendations were taken forward.

“No-one at work should feel they are bullied – it’s unacceptable behaviour”

Norman Provan

He added: “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,” he said.

In response to the findings, Scottish health secretary Jeane Freeman announced that dedicated “whistleblowing champions” would be recruited to every health board by the end of 2019.

She is also proposing legislation to allow the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman to take on the role of independent national whistleblowing officer for NHS Scotland by summer 2020.

In addition, the government will host a summit this summer bringing together the leadership of NHS boards, staff and trades unions, royal colleges and professional and regulatory bodies to look at what more can be done to promote positive workplace practices across Scotland’s health service.

Norman Provan, associate director for the Royal College of Nursing in Scotland, said the report should be a “wake-up call” to NHS Highland to take the concerns raised by staff seriously in the future. 

Royal College of Nursing

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Norman Provan

He also acknowledged that the RCN could take learning from the findings and vowed to unpick the report to consider what improvements it could make in its representation of members.

“The RCN acknowledges that there is learning for all parties from this report and we will be reviewing the report in detail to consider what improvements we can and should make in representing our members,” Mr Provan said. 

“No-one at work should feel they are bullied – it’s unacceptable behaviour that can have a devastating impact on individuals and must not be tolerated under any circumstances,” he said.

He added: “Health boards and managers need to be more proactive, listen to their staff and change the workplace culture for the benefit of staff and patients.”