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A nurse who was threatened by colleagues for speaking out about care failings at Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust has said bullying remains a “real problem” in the NHS.
Helene Donnelly (pictured above) has told MPs that more than 10 years on from the scandal – commonly known as Mid Staffs – she was still seeing “echoes” of what she experienced happening across the country.
“Although it is in the minority, as we saw at Mid Staffs the results can be absolutely catastrophic”
She called for the development of a national body to improve workplace cultures in the NHS and “stamp out bullying once and for all”.
The inquiry into poor standards of care and deaths at Mid Staffordshire indentified issues around staff behaviour, inadequate staffing levels and skills, and lack of effective leadership and support.
Ms Donnelly told a Health and Social Care Committee hearing today that there were “real negative behaviours” at the trust that created a “real bullying culture of fear and intimidation”.
“There was not a culture that encouraged and enabled staff to speak up and if they did as I did, we were bullied and threatened,” said Ms Donnelly, who now holds the roles of ambassador for cultural change and lead Freedom to Speak Up Guardian at the organisation where she works.
After whistleblowing, colleagues had threatened to attack Ms Donnelly and she had also been locked in a changing room by a fellow nurse who was worried that she might speak out about their misconduct.
Other colleagues had also threatened to make it look as if Ms Donnelly had made a drug error during her shifts, she told the committee, which was examining the issue of bullying, discrimination and harassment in the NHS and social care.
Accompanying this was a “real failure from management” who “wilfully and knowingly allowed it to continue and in some cases actually promoted and praised and recognised and celebrated the perpetrators of such behaviours and misconduct”, added Ms Donnelly.
She had also felt “failed” by regulators and unions who she said “should have been there to support”.
Ms Donnelly continued: “And sadly, I still see this over 10 years on in my national work I do now as a Freedom to Speak Up Guardian and as ambassador for cultural change.
“Across the country I see echoes of what I experienced at Mid Staffs still happening.”
While stressing that such cases were isolated, Ms Donnelly warned that the NHS still had a “real problem with bullying, and I think it has to be acknowledged and has to be addressed”.
“And although it is in the minority, as we saw at Mid Staffs the results can be absolutely catastrophic,” added Ms Donnelly, who supported the Nursing Times Speak Out Safely campaign in 2013.
“That in turn leads more and more staff to feel apathetic, to feel disillusioned, and it creates a culture of staff not speaking up”
There was a vital need for “compassionate leadership”, added Ms Donnelly, who recognised there was now a “real will and understanding across the service that this is required”.
However, she warned that “when the pressure is on…that goes out the window and some of this negative behaviour continues”.
When asked what was needed to help tackle these issues, Ms Donnelly called for the development of a new national body or steering group.
This body should have “all the relevant stakeholders round the table” and would “offer some tangible traction on really improving cultures, compassionate leadership and stamping out bullying once and for all”, said Ms Donnelly.
Alongside this she called for “greater scrutiny and data collection” on staff safety and wellbeing and for “greater accountability and sanctions” for those who continued to bully and intimidate others even after intervention.
She said there needed to be action to address the root of the issues rather than simply “moving the problem”.
“Both internally within individual organisations and across the whole NHS as a whole, we have particular individuals and characters who are known to display persistently negative bullying and intimidating behaviours, yet they are too difficult to handle so they just get moved along,” Ms Donnelly explained.
“That can be internally or externally, and it just passes the problem and doesn’t really address it.
“And that in turn leads more and more staff to feel apathetic, to feel disillusioned, and it creates a culture of staff not speaking up.”
Today’s committee meeting was part of an ongoing inquiry that is looking at the toll of burnout and excessive workload on the mental wellbeing of NHS and social care staff.