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15th June 2015

Speak up!

Speak upThe treatment of whistleblowers does little to encourage more people to speak out about poor practice at work. Yet it is essential that managers are made aware when service users are at risk.

It is with heavy heart that I read again in this week’s news about allegations of abuse in care services for people with learning disabilities. Long Leys Court in Lincoln has been subject to emergency measures and the sixteen people living there moved into alternative accommodation amid allegations of risks to their safety.

We hear some very troubling stories about how people who are vulnerable can be subject to ill treatment at the hands of those who care for them. In updating the safeguarding policy, I was prompted to reflect on how as managers we can ever really prevent harm from coming to those we support.

Carers who don’t care?

It would be wonderful if we could only ever employ people who were patient, kind and consistent. When setting out to recruit new staff, we always seek those who have the right attitude and values to be positive assets to our service, yet sadly sometimes their conduct falls short of our expectations.

Why this happens would take a whole separate article to explore, and we might never find the answer. One could opine that the circumstances our care staff work in, with often long hours and high stress environments, can lead to impatient and fractious staff with short fuses. We know that many of the people we support can be extremely challenging and to walk away when feeling confronted is not usually an option for care workers.

However, there is a word of difference between a staff member ‘losing their cool’ in a stressful situation and endemic institutional cruelty. Neither is acceptable and both need to be addressed at once, but it takes a flawed workplace culture to let these momentary lapses of professionalism slide into a daily norm of service user abuse.

Cultures of candour

A common response to accusations of condoning workplace abuse of the vulnerable is that staff did not feel able to speak out. Bullying at work is not a myth, many people feel that to go against the flow and behave differently to their colleagues would single them out as sneaks. We all want to be popular, even if being popular means doing things we don’t feel happy with.

Speaking up about things we don’t like at work is a huge step. Staff members worry that they will be unpopular, isolated, even dismissed. We all have a whistleblowing policy, but how are we, as managers, making sure it’s not just a token gesture?

Building a culture of openness and transparency means breaking down the institutional practices that foster and protect poor practice. It should be normal, nay, encouraged for workers to talk about their feelings about things that they do and see at work. Supervision is the ideal forum to do this, with the opportunity to discuss and explore staff views on practice. All supervision sessions should include a question about safeguarding risks and concerns.

Solutions for encouraging openness

The introduction in my workplace of a ‘cause for concern’ reporting system has had the outcome of highlighting numerous issues that needed to be reviewed. Few of these are actually upheld as evidence of poor practice, but all of them are looked into and systems are changed or updated where there is a risk that we are not getting it right. As we say on the policy; if you are not comfortable in any way about something at work, you need to speak out.

A non-punitive approach to incidents has meant that even in situations where a colleagues practice is called into question, the immediate response is to review, discuss, retrain and update. We work from the basis that our staff are essentially good, well-intentioned individuals. This applies to both whistleblowers and those they expose.

To ensure you have a workplace where staff are happy and feel safe to promote good practice, you may have to welcome a good deal more feedback about concerns than you feel comfortable with. But remember, reporting should be seen as a hugely positive thing; not a sign of a failing service but an indicator that staff are vigilant and supported to speak out. Repackage ‘reporting unsafe practice’ as ‘highlighting a concern’, with evidence that you are learning from the process and your regulators will applaud your candour. More importantly, your service users will be less at risk of harm.

Useful information and help around whistleblowing can be found here.

*All information is correct at the time of publishing. Use of this material is subject to your acceptance of our terms and conditions.

Ginny Tyler

Learning Disabilities Specialist

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