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Helene Donnelly: ‘Failing to ensure staff are encouraged to speak out will do harm’

Trusts must question why they have not signed up to the Nursing Times Speak Out Safely campaign, says Helene Donnelly

Speaking out safely is a simple concept. Sadly, some trusts appear to be failing to grasp the importance of this.

We all know that the vast majority of health professionals work extremely hard under ever-increasing demands.

However, where failures and poor standards of care exist it is vital that health professionals feel informed and empowered to identify and raise these problems so that they can be improved. In order for this to happen, staff must be supported and protected when they do speak out.    

Since the 1 April I have been working as ambassador for cultural change for the Staffordshire and Stoke-On-Trent Partnership Trust (SSOTP).

Following on from my experiences at Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust and giving evidence at both Francis inquiries, Ihave been trying to raise the importance of staff speaking out about poor patient care and standards.

“All trusts must recognise that they have a responsibility to truly support and protect their staff when they do speak out, otherwise nothing will change and patients will be failed”

I know full well how daunting and frightening this can be for a variety of reasons. The culture in the NHS needs to change.

I am promoting awareness of raising concerns and how it impacts on us in practice. I am helping to educate and support all staff working for the trust and therefore encouraging staff to raise concerns if they have them.

I am trying to help make the process of speaking out more user-friendly, so that this, in itself, does not put people off.

I believe whistleblowing policies should become standardised nationally, so all NHS staff know what to expect irrespective of where they work.

We need to see mandatory and statutory training updates for all staff on how to raise concerns. Trust inductions need to include sessions on raising concerns for staff, and I am happy to say the SSOPT are now doing this.

Six months in, it is clear that there is a need for this post.

I have been contacted by many staff. Their concerns usually centre around poor staffing levels and behaviours. General themes include staff feeling they are not listened to. This is often due to a simple communication breakdown. I am very pleased to say that this is now being addressed. Staff are being reassured and kept informed.

However, it is fair to say that it is still early days and more does need to be done to truly encourage and celebrate staff who genuinely raise concerns to improve services. I am confident that this will happen.  

Some initial cynicism from staff has been understandable. Often this is due to fear of possible repercussions, but also because they feel that nothing ever changes.

Through my role, however, change is happening. I am able to help the voices of frontline staff be heard at the highest level and empower staff to come forward.

My chief executive is very proactive about wanting to know if things are not right for staff, especially if patients could suffer as a result. If he does not know about it, then nothing will improve.

I am getting this message across to staff and I feel that it is a message that all trusts CEOs should be sending out.

One way of ensuring that the message is not simply words and actually becomes actions, would be to develop a similar role to that of ambassador for cultural change within their own trusts. Another is to sign up to the Nursing Times Speak Out Safely campaign.

If we are going to learn from the terrible failures in the NHS, it must not be ignored that staff have a duty to raise concerns. In order for them to fulfil this duty, all trusts must recognise that they have a responsibility to truly support and protect their staff when they do speak out, otherwise nothing will change and patients will be failed.

There is no room for complacency in the NHS. Some trusts may feel that they do not have a problem in encouraging staff to raise concerns.

However, a belt and braces approach would do no harm, and on the contrary, failing to ensure that staff are encouraged to speak out will actually do harm.

I would ask trusts to question why they have not signed up to the NT Speak Out Safely campaign yet. Surely there can be no reason not to.

Helene Donnelly is ambassador for cultural change at the Staffordshire and Stoke-On-Trent Partnership Trust

Readers' comments (7)

  • michael stone

    'Trusts must question why they have not signed up to the Nursing Times Speak Out Safely campaign, says Helene Donnelly'

    Perhaps The Mail would be kind enough to run a full-page spread, listing all of the Trusts which have signed up, and listing those which haven't signed up ? Then its readers in the areas of those which don't seem keen on 'admitting to our mistakes to improve our care of patients' (the whole point of SOS) might ask the Trusts 'How come you are not onboard ?'.

    I'm sure The Mail would like to help - it is forever running 'NHS stories'.

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  • tinkerbell

    Helene you are a fine example and role model to others that you can take on a toxic, bullying institution/culture and come out the other side still standing. We must 'celebrate' those who come forward and raise genuine concerns in the hope that one day the fear element of speaking out for patients will become history.

    Managers, at every level, who tolerate suppression, collusion and bullying cultures so that teams cannot provide safe patient care should be held to account.

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  • How do we find out who has signed up and who hasn't? The ones that refuse need to publicly tell us why.

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  • The list is here

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  • I'd prefer my local organisation not to sign up. I'm 100% behind the campaign, but it would just be another demonstration of their ability to have the procedures & say the right thing, whilst doing the opposite.
    For the campaign to retain its credibility, signing should only be done by those organisations that are genuinely going to act.
    I know I'm not alone in having been dismissed with a gagging order for raising concerns. A recent review of patient complaints regionally showed this organisation had a markedly lower percentage of responses to complaints where it actually took any responsibility or agreed a matter of concern.
    When an organisation can demonstrate action as well as words, then it should sign up.

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  • the NHS should be concentrating on looking after their patients, providing resources for their staff and good leadership which is their purpose and not wasting precious time, energy and money signing up to schemes!

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  • Hi Helene,
    Patients First Scotland applaud your excellent example and would like to follow this in Scotland.
    We should like it very much for you to come to our Event at Holyrood in November with your Chief Executive and promote your Ambassador role to NHS Scotland at the same time.

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