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NHS Highland vows to deal with bullying after an independent panel alleges managers are still bullying staff 30 months after whistleblowers lifted the lid on the board's harassment crisis

By Scott Maclennan

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HR director Fiona Hogg is helping to lead the battle against bullying.
HR director Fiona Hogg is helping to lead the battle against bullying.

NHS Highland has vowed to further improve in the face of two independent reports that have again delved into the thorny issue of bullying within the organisation.

A total of 26 recommendations for change have been made across the reports by the Independent Review Panel (IRP) set up to consider the experiences of current and former members of staff in the wake of the explosive bullying allegations that have rocked the health board.

The reports – and NHS Highland’s response to them – will be discussed at a board meeting on Tuesday.

The IRP took testimony from 84 individuals and has set out changes it believes need to be made across the board.

These include a root and branch review of the health board’s HR function and of the existing capabilities of all managers and clinical leaders – as a basis for putting in place effective personal development plans and training.

The IRP, which sits separately from the NHS board, heard about a “centralist and dictatorial” culture and “toxic” behaviour rife throughout the organisation, as was also previously set out in the Sturrock Report produced following bullying revelations by whistle-blowers.

The panel’s remit extends only to considering experiences up to the end of 2019, but its report also states: “At the outset the members of the IRP need to record that we have heard testimony that bullying behaviour is still evident within NHS Highland particularly on the part of longer serving managerial/supervisory staff whose careers had progressed under the former leadership of the organisation.”

NHS Highland says that, of 22 recommendations made in the first IRP report, 14 are already in progress.

These include the implementation of an ongoing development programme for all clinical leaders, managers and board members and work to create a culture that is less about a “blame culture” and more about engaging and empowering staff.

Recommendations that are yet to be fully acted on include the review of HR after the IRP reported how it had heard “established HR policies tended to be used to reinforce the bullying culture.”

It calls for the adoption of the mantra “People Matter Most”, explaining: “It means they see the person first and the job role second. It means that it realises that the challenges facing the organisation in this case will not be solved by the staff handbook and its existing policies.

“These problems are only solved by deeply listening to, connecting to and inspiring people. Skills that have been forgotten, lost or not been available in NHS Highland.”

While it is not yet completed, though, NHS Highland says the review is well under way, with the first phase of a restructuring expected to be completed by June.

Also due to start this year is a programme of regular briefings for the board from those providing frontline services.

Previously, the IRP said: “There was a reluctance to report ‘bad news’, to the extent that NHS Highland board was not able to identify where things were going wrong and improvement was required.”

The health board’s HR director Fiona Hogg, appointed long after bullying allegations first emerged, said the board was determined to learn from the mistakes of the past.

“NHS Highland recognises and accepts the recommendations of the IRP and is committed to investing the necessary time, effort and resources to addressing these recommendations and delivering our wider Culture Programme plans for the benefit of all NHS Highland colleagues,” she said.

“Whilst noting the significant progress already made against a number of the recommendations, there is an ongoing, substantial and long-term programme of work which is being put in place to address this completely.”

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