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Fears bullying at NHS Highland is still widespread after Argyll and Bute probe finds 68 per cent of staff were harassed

By Scott Maclennan

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The GMB Union NHS Highland lead Gavin Smith.
The GMB Union NHS Highland lead Gavin Smith.

Unions have hit out at NHS Highland after a report found that 68 per cent of staff in Argyll and Bute said they had been bullied, sparking fears the practice continues across the region unabated one year on from the Sturrock Review.

John Sturrock QC was tasked by health secretary Jeane Freeman with investigating claims of a culture of bullying at the board after a wave of allegations were triggered by whistle-blowers in September 2018.

NHS Highland and Argyll and Bute Health and Social Care Partnership (HSCP) have offered a “sincere apology” to more than 340 current and former staff who responded to a survey saying that they suffered bullying and harassment.

The survey was undertaken between February and April and received responses from 446 of 1540 NHS staff at Argyll and Bute HSCP, along with 62 people who had left the organisation.

It shows that 68 per cent claimed they had been bullied, with around half those saying it had happened in the last year.

Some of the figures reported are:

  • 65 per cent of the 446 respondents who are still employed reported experiencing bullying and harassment equating to 19 per cent of the current NHS Highland workforce in the Argyll and Bute HSCP.
  • 49 per cent of those 344 respondents experienced bullying within the last six months, equating to more than one in 10 of current staff
  • 41 per cent said they were bullied frequently and happened across all grades or ranks
  • 67 per cent of respondents who had experienced bullying said they had reported it via one of the formal channels

The GMB’s lead on NHS Highland, Gavin Smith, said this casts a shadow over the rest of the board where he believes bullying is also continuing despite recent efforts to stamp out the practice.

“This is consistent with the Sturrock Review findings into the rest of NHS Highland,” he said. “I am in no doubt whatsoever the figures would be similar elsewhere. It is a disgrace because a huge proportion of these cases can be traced to the year after the Sturrock Review was published. It really is damning."

NHS Highland commissioned the survey and ensured the Argyll and Bute HSCP were consulted upon the work being undertaken, as part of its response to the Sturrock Review in an ongoing plan to deliver a culture of trust, fairness and respect across the organisation.

This programme of activity has so far seen the announcement of the so-called healing process along with a new employee assistance programme and a planned independent ‘speak up’ service for those wishing to concerns.

The board has also set up an independent helpline to allow colleagues to discuss concerns as part of a 100-day action plan for Argyll and Bute HSCP.

It also includes an independent review of disciplinary, grievance, bullying and harassment procedures, a monthly assurance panel to review hiring decisions and build trust as well as defining behaviour standards that set clear role expectations for managers and colleagues.

NHS Highland chairman Professor Boyd Robertson said: “We are deeply concerned by the results of the survey and accept them fully. We sincerely apologise to any colleague who has experienced bullying or harassment and are determined to make the changes necessary to improve the experience for colleagues and rebuild trust and confidence across the whole organisation.

“While significant work has already been undertaken to deliver a number of initiatives to address our cultural issues, this report reinforces the need for that programme to continue and for key priorities to be acted upon quickly.

"We have immediately put in place an action plan for Argyll and Bute which integrates into our wider culture improvement programme and will be delivered in partnership with colleagues and independent agencies.”

Argyll and Bute HSCP chief officer Joanna Macdonald said: “It is distressing to see that a significant number of our colleagues have experienced bullying and harassment and addressing the implications of this report will be a high priority.

“We will work in close partnership with colleagues and stakeholders across all of the organisation to deliver the actions necessary to achieve a culture that is based upon dignity and respect for each other.”

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