Catalogue of issues reported by whistleblowers at three Essex hospitals

NHS whistleblowers have reported bullying, harassment and discrimination among dozens of complaints about management at south Essex hospitals.

Reports from staff at Basildon, Southend, and Broomfield hospitals have revealed staff are facing “untenable pressures” to work overtime which is negatively impacting their performance and wellbeing.

Hard-pressed staff reported being treated unfairly, without consideration of their feelings and without compassion.

One complaint involved a manager “who routinely holds discussions on the phone with staff regarding private and sensitive issues on a loudspeaker phone with their door open, despite being told that it is upsetting staff”.

Shockingly, medics are also increasingly in fear of their own safety. Seven cases related to incidents of staff being attacked or feeling threatened with violence by patients or visitors.

These cases led to improved control measures like push button alarms, environment changes and de-escalation training for staff in high-risk areas.

A spokesperson for campaign group Save Southend NHS said: “We have experiences and evidence from many practitioners, who have stated that too often their concerns are ignored by management.

“Common consequences described by staff raising such concerns include poorer standards of communication, dysfunctional teams, reduced staff confidence, reduced staff performance and poor mental health.

“It is therefore reasonably foreseeable that poor standards of behaviour between staff could lead to higher staff absence rates, reduced focus on patient care, more human error, and reduced care capability.”

The Guardian Service, an independent and confidential service which protects NHS staff who raise concerns, has reported a rise in complaints from staff at Southend, Basildon and Broomfield hospitals

A report highlighting complaints says staff across Mid and South Essex have raised 248 new concerns between April 1, 2023 and March 31 this year – an increase of 70 on the previous year.

The highest numbers of concerns involved management issues with accusations of incivility, bullying, harassment and discrimination.

There were also 110 complaints from nursing and midwifery staff.

Both medical and administrative staff complained of alleged dishonesty and lack of transparency in communications. They also felt complaints of bad behaviour made against management colleagues were not dealt with appropriately.

Chief executive Matthew Hopkins

There was also a perception that pressures on bed management was “damaging the clinical capability of individuals and teams”.

Despite some improvements following the whistleblowing, the report said: “There is a perception from some staff across the NHS that whistleblowing is dangerous for your career.”

Matthew Hopkins, chief executive of the Mid and South Essex NHS Trust, said: “Our first priority is providing the highest quality care for our patients. We know that an open and honest culture, where our staff feel safe to raise concerns, enables us to continuously improve the care we provide. The confidential and independent Guardian Service works alongside our own Freedom to Speak Up Champions to help support staff to raise concerns.

“Over the last year we have promoted the service, which has successfully increased the number of cases being reported to the Guardian Service. In turn, this has helped to improve the speak up culture within our hospitals.”

Patient safety compromised

Patient safety is being put at risk by a catalogue of issues including a lack of experienced staff leading to “many mistakes”, concerned NHS workers have said.

The number of patient safety concerns raised by staff across the Mid and South Essex Trust has almost doubled from 17 to 31 in the last 12 months.

Among the complaints, highlighted in a report, was a perception the number of staff has not increased in line with the rise in patients being treatment.

Experienced staff who had left the trust are said to be replaced with inexperienced, improperly trained staff who were not managed well, “contributing to many mistakes impacting on patient care standards”.

A case reported to the Guardian Service in February last year involved a reduction in clinical performance after a merger of departments which included “seriously poor outcomes for patients including increased mortality rates”.

Staff also alleged “cultural differences, communication issues, task allocation and team dynamics” all led to reduced patient care standards. Concerns were also raised about the robustness of drug storage in a mental health unit and deceased patients “not being treated with respect” according to worried staff.

Samples at the three hospitals were said to not be tested in time due to large backlog of test with staff told to “focus on quantity rather than quality of testing processes.”

Following the publication of the Guardian Service report by Mid and South Essex NHS Trust, Unison warned issues “will only get worse” unless urgent action is taken to boost staff numbers as a matter of urgency.

Sam Older, Unison eastern regional organiser, said: “The rising numbers of safety concerns reported to guardians takes place against a backdrop of tightening budgets, understaffing and plummeting morale.

“This is only going to get worse as more vacancies go unfilled and wards are increasingly expected to operate on a skeleton staff.

“The trust must take these seriously but the report only covers the issues raised through Freedom to Speak Up guardians and there are still outstanding concerns we’ve raised about safety, bank shifts, job evaluations, vacancy management, parking charges and more that must also be addressed as a matter or urgency.”

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Christine Sexton

Local Democracy Reporter