Sick to death of morals
Whistleblowers are often ostracised and the stress can cause severe illness, from which many never recover. By Roger Dobson
Tuesday 09 June 1998
Whistleblower Alison Taylor, who put the spotlight on years of child abuse in North Wales, also became physically ill after she was sacked, while another social worker who complained about problems in her local authority has been unable to work for more than three years, after suffering a nervous breakdown.
Workers who report abuse, bullying and bad practice not only run the risk of being ostracised by fellow workers, victimised by managers, suspended and sacked, they can also suffer serious ill health.
Years of depression, anxiety, panic attacks and low self-esteem are common among those who have given up almost everything to raise the alarm, according to Dr Geoffrey Hunt, author of a new book on whistleblowing published today. They are also more likely to commit suicide and experience higher rates of disease, ranging from colitis to cancer.
Despite the popular image of the whistleblower as a folk hero, the reality is that it can be a deeply traumatic time for those social workers and others who want to pick up the pieces and carry on with their life.
"The whistleblower is caught in the middle - a hero to the public, and a troublemaker, even a deviant, to the organisation, and that takes its toll on their mental and physical health," says Dr Hunt, editor of Whistleblowing in the Social Services and director of the European Centre for Professional Ethics at the University of East London.
He says that a large proportion of the 200 whistleblowers who belong to the pressure group Freedom to Care, which he also co-ordinates, have suffered ill health as a consequence of what they did.
"We now have plenty of evidence that whistleblowing affects health. When people are put under that kind of stress in highly charged atmospheres it can cause all kinds of illness," he says.
"Severe depression is pretty common, and we have people who have been diagnosed as having post traumatic stress disorder and who are receiving treatment for it. People lose weight, have panic attacks, and suffer with insomnia. We know, too, that the very high stress levels they experience are also predictors of physical disease," he says.
The health problems in whistleblowers such as Alison Taylor and Betty Millar are caused both by the stress of their situation, and the personal repercussions of their action, which often alienate them from people who were once colleagues and friends. Whistleblowing is still regarded by fellow workers and employers as sneaking or telling lies, and as evidence of disloyalty. And it is being forced out of the group that puts the most stress on whistleblowers, says Dr Jill Wilkinson, a psychologist at the University of Surrey.
"The need to belong is important for self-esteem and mental health. If it is a moral decision to blow the whistle rather than one of career enhancement or revenge, then it is going to lead to a conflict. We like to be members of groups, which give us crucial social support, which is itself one of the most important indicators of how people cope with stressful situations," she said.
And social scientist Dr Keith Macdonald says that the pressure can become intense when the whistleblower goes against conformity: "People like doctors, social workers and police officers who go against the culture of these groups find themselves in highly stressed situations where people who were once colleagues can be hostile towards them. They are challenging the establishment and they suddenly lose everything, the group support, career, job and so on."
Betty Millar traces her ill health back to when she was working in an NHS trust and was becoming increasingly concerned about an overspend that was going on.
"I raised my concerns with internal audit, but they didn't do anything. A colleague complained about similar problems and resigned and then took the trust to a tribunal for constructive dismissal and won. I gave evidence at the tribunal and on the same day I was given my redundancy notice. I was told that management saw me as the enemy and wanted to keep me quiet.
"I didn't realise at the time what it was doing to me. People tell me I have changed, I have become more withdrawn. I cancel social things, I didn't go to a friend's wedding, for instance. I have been treated for depression and I have difficulty in getting motivated. I get very tired and every day it's like there is a battle going on inside me.
"You try to be positive and to keep going but it is very hard because it has such a major effect on your life. I have gone from having a very responsible job, and I loved my work very much, to working part-time and my salary is a third of what it was. I don't know if I will ever be able to work full-time again.
"Until all this happened I was healthy and happy and enjoying life. I did what I thought I was being paid to do, and I have lost everything. I took the trust to an industrial tribunal and they made a settlement out of court. I am now taking legal action against them for the stress that they caused me."
Former social worker Alison Taylor, now a novelist, also suffered ill health when she blew the whistle on child abuse in North Wales.
"I was sacked because I refused to ignore persistent and widespread allegations about the abuse of children in care. It was a time in my life that had a profound effect on my health," she says.
"I made myself unacceptable to employers and colleagues, some of whom shared my disquiet, but I was the only one to break out, to commit professional suicide and I was labelled as a disruptive and deviant personality, just as children in care are labelled.
"The real health problem was the enormous stress you were under every day, every week and every month. There was the suspension, the uncertainty of it all, and knowing you had done nothing wrong but that the people who were the abusers were still out there unaffected.
"At the time I was the sole wage earner, so financially it was a pretty stressful and traumatic prospect. My son was then 10 and my daughter still at university and there was a mortgage. I realised things were going to get bad and it affected my health considerably and once you have that kind of chronic damage, I think you never recover from it.
"I have an arthritic condition, which is something to do with the immune system, and it affects the joints and the muscles. I suffer from very painful colitis which is triggered by stressful situations, and my insomnia has got worse.
"When I was working as a social worker I used to get a churning of the stomach when I saw somebody who I knew was an abuser. Ten years on, I still suffer from that conditioning. When I saw those same faces at the North Wales Abuse Tribunal, I had the same feeling.
Another social worker, who raised concerns about the way her report on the poor quality of care a mother was providing was dealt with, describes how her life was turned upside down three years ago.
"I believe I suffered a nervous breakdown due to management's mishandling of the situation. As a result I was absent on full sick pay for six months, on half pay for the following six months, and I received no pay at all for the last six months," she says.
"One weekend I could go on no longer. I knew I could not cope with another day at work, and I collapsed at home on a Sunday as I faced the prospect of work the next day. I have not been to work since. I felt I was either intimidated, patronised or bribed to take early retirement on the grounds of ill health."
There are concerns that the long-term impact of whistleblowing on the health of those who have the courage to take action may deter others from doing the same.
Most worrying, given the apparent scale of the abuse problem in Britain, the book reports research among social workers which shows that many believe it has become more difficult for them to complain. Nearly eight out of 10 also want changes in the law to give more protection for whistleblowers.
While Britain's whistleblowers run the risks of dismissal, discrimination and ill health, their counterparts in America have enjoyed formal federal protection since 1989 and in some states victimisation of those who complain has been made illegal.
Whistleblowers, as Dr Hunt points out, are mostly motivated by wanting to put right something that they saw as being wrong. The tragedy is that only abusers prosper when the treatment of whistleblowers deters others who want to speak out.
`Whistleblowing in the Social Services' edited by Geoffrey Hunt, Arnold, pounds 15.99, is published today.
GREAT WHISTLEBLOWERS OF OUR TIME
Senior civil servant Clive Ponting appeared in court in 1985 accused of breaking the Official Secrets Act by passing data about the sinking of the Belgrano to MP Tam Dalyell. He was acquitted and is now a lecturer and writer in Wales.
Foreign Office clerk Sarah Tisdall was jailed in 1984 for leaking a secret document about the arrival of cruise missiles. She admitted copying it while in a minister's office.
Former MI5 officer Cathy Lassiter in 1985 leaked information about the agency tactics against left-wing activists and CND to a television documentary crew. She left MI5 - whereabouts now not known.
Dr Chris Chapman, a senior scientist at Leeds General Infirmary, lost his job after revealing scientific fraud in 1989.
Dr Helen Zeitlin, a consultant haematologist in Bromsgrove, left the NHS in 1990 after highlighting shortages of nurses. She now lives in mid Wales.
Peter Rayner lost his job at British Rail in 1991 after warning about safety.
He was chief operating manager on London Midland and said that privatisation might affect safety.
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