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UNISON: Bullying still rife within NHS Highland 18 months after £2.8 million “healing process” was concluded

By Alasdair Fraser

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NHS Highland bullying remains rife - claim
NHS Highland bullying remains rife - claim

Bullying within NHS Highland remains rife 18 months after a £2.8 million “healing process” was concluded.

That is the claim by a union dealing with a case load it says is as high as before the health authority’s bullying scandal broke more than five years ago.

Whistle-blowing doctors first came forward in September 2018 to expose a “culture of fear and intimidation” at NHS Highland they said was threatening patient safety and causing an exodus of staff.

Despite a far-reaching review by a senior QC which backed the whistleblowers, UNISON says there is no discernible difference in the case numbers it is handling.

It also believes systems in place lead to an underreporting of official bullying figures.

Dawn Macdonald, UNISON Highland healthcare branch secretary, said: “UNISON members consistently report bullying behaviour across NHS Highland (NHSH) and the problem is not going away.

“NHSH collates their bullying figures in a flawed way which means that the issue is underreported.

“And work to change the culture identified by the Sturrock Review has also stalled.

“UNISON members on the frontline say they can’t see progress and that’s just not acceptable.

“Staff need more than words and good intentions – they want to see change for the better.”

The claims were greeted with dismay by Brian Devlin, a former director of public relations for NHS Highland and a victim of bullying.

Mr Devlin said: “This is very serious and worrying, but sadly not surprising.

“There are still bullies in positions of power in the organisation. Leaders know who they are.

Brian Devlin said there are still bullies in place within NHS Highland.
Brian Devlin said there are still bullies in place within NHS Highland.

“One can only presume that they are tolerated because there is a tacit acceptance that, despite all that’s gone on, their behaviours are found to be acceptable.

“They talk, the talk about cultural change, but it’s management doublespeak and waffle.

“Let’s be under no illusions here, the culture is set from the top. It always has been.

“Unless there is an authentic desire for changes in behaviour, with significant consequences for those who don’t meet those changes, then NHS Highland will never shed its bullying image.”

After over 100 clinicians – led by Inverness GP Dr Iain Kennedy – supported the first whistle-blowers, John Sturrock QC was appointed to lead an independent review.

Reporting back in May 2019, the Sturrock Review concluded that many hundreds of staff had been victims of bullying and inappropriate behaviour.

It found the toxic workplace culture had led to a significant number of departures at all levels, including senior medics.

John Sturrock found evidence of bullying five years ago.
John Sturrock found evidence of bullying five years ago.

After embracing Sturrock’s recommendations, NHS Highland sought to draw a line under the episode by concluding a two-year healing process in June last year, with 233 compensatory pay-outs totalling £2,825,000 to current or former staff.

The Scottish Government’s ‘Once for Scotland’ workforce policies programme is now supposed to ensure that all NHS Scotland staff are treated fairly and consistently, with early resolution to bullying concerns and a formal mechanism for ongoing complaints.

UNISON insists they are seeing staff complaining of the same issues as they did before Sturrock, in similar numbers, with official figures reflecting only those staff members who take complaints to the formal stage.

Ms Macdonald added: “In the early resolution stage, someone goes to a line manager saying they feel they are being bullied.

“It is then about the line manager having the confidence, training and skills to sit down with that person and resolve that conflict.

“So many of those line managers were clinicians who became staff leaders, without any training.

“They could be good at working with patients, very good at their job, but they have suddenly got to deal with all these HR policies they have never encountered before.

“That’s why UNISON ends up being called so much.

“In some cases, the managers actually exacerbate the situation because they don’t know how to handle it.

“There is no data collection around early resolution. How many times has the early intervention worked? How many times has the staff member simply left the health board or their profession?

“We’re finding we’re losing a lot of staff to other boards.We suspect one reason is that they can’t get resolution around problems.”

An NHS Highland spokeswoman said: "We are disappointed to hear the statements made by unison representatives. Ensuring a positive culture within the working environment across NHS Highland is one of our top priorities.

"We would not agree with the broad statements made but would absolutely acknowledge that any type of bullying behaviour is unacceptable.

"We have many routes including independent, confidential routes by which colleagues can raise concerns and do, the majority of which are dealt with through early resolution.

"We have taken time to launch the next phase of the culture and leadership programme, approved by the NHSH board at its September meeting and now moving towards implementation.

"Our Culture Oversight Group, Area Partnership Forum and Staff Governance Committee provide the governance by which this programme is overseen and union representatives including unison participate in these arrangements in all forums.

"We will continue to work with all union colleagues to ensure we keep the focus on NHS Highland being a great place to work everywhere in the board."

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