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Why the NHS shouldn't need to worry about whistleblowers

10th May 2019

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has confirmed his commitment to banning the use of NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) in the NHS, the so-called ‘gagging orders’. More healthcare staff should be actively encouraged to “put their head above the parapet” on issues like misconduct, failing services and equipment, he says.

The end of NDAs should be fundamental to encouraging good working environments across the NHS and the kind of honest, self-aware culture that both staff and patients can rely on. A report by the National Guardian’s Office in 2018 suggested that many NHS whistleblowers were being fired and subject to all kinds of other “subtle punishments”.

For NHS bosses, though, it sounds like a whistleblowers’ licence and a serious headache. What happens when there are staff with a grudge when going public with complaints is more driven by malice than real concerns? How do you control attitudes among other managers and employees when they don’t agree with the whistleblower?

Dealing with conflict in large, complex organisations is never as straightforward as everyone agreeing to a principle of openness. There has to be a deep-rooted sense of trust, in management, in each other.

In our experience of working with large public sector employers, government departments and blue light services, that only comes with clear processes and training across levels in the kinds of skills that build Conversational Intelligence – the ability to have good conversations, handle disagreements, conflict, sensitivities and differences of perspective in mature and constructive ways.

Standard access to an informal process like mediation will be essential. Mediation sounds like it should be fundamental to HR in the NHS, and yet there continue to be a variety of individual, non-standard arrangements provided by each NHS employer. There’s something more like competition between parts of the organisation on service provision and who’s performing better rather than sharing and collaboration over standards for dealing with staff disputes.

Different responses and attitudes to mediation can only encourage uncertainty. And in practical terms, there are many dangers associated with drawn out or mishandled situations, for the use of line manager time, potential claims of bias, and the creation of ugly situations that affect workplace atmosphere and relationships more generally.

Like all good principles that the great majority of people believe in, what really matters is the detail, all the work that goes on in the background to make the fine principles workable in practice. That’s why the NHS needs to be looking hard at its people development offerings, and services like mediation.

Arran Heal, Managing Director, CMP