Letter to the Editor by RN in England on "Whistleblowing As a Failure of Organizational Ethics"

Administrative Ethics: What's Your Integrity Quotient (IQ)?

March 29, 2001
in response to Whistleblowing As a Failure of Organizational Ethics
with reply by authors

Dear Editor:

I write in response to the article "Whistleblowing as a Failure of Organizational Ethics". I am a whistleblower working in a care of the elderly unit in a famous hospital in England. I blew the whistle in response to the abuse of elderly patients by staff that I witnessed in this unit. I still work in the unit because even though a major investigation is currently taking place, there remains some patient abuse, especially on night duty. My feelings are that management is trying to sweep this abuse under the carpet. Several senior nursing staff have been suspended as a result of confidential interviews that were held involving all staff on the unit; however, their cronies remain.

Because of the way I have been marginalized as the whistleblower, some staff are now withdrawing their statements fearing they will be required to give evidence at a hearing. I have been actively encouraged to leave the unit and work elsewhere. I am very tempted to do this, but my concerns for the vulnerable patients still at the mercy of the abusers are too great. Things have improved since the suspensions, and a caretaker management is in place, but therein lies a tale too gruesome to contemplate.

RN in England

Note: The OJIN Editor asked the author of this letter to clarify her comment that "therein lies a tale too gruesome to contemplate." Excerpts of the author's response follow:

I worked as a staff nurse on this unit for six months before I worked up the courage to officially "whistleblow". During that six month period I reported every incident of abuse to my line managers up to and including the ward manager. For these six months I went through hell wrestling with my conscience before I went above my manager with the complaints.

I was unable to sleep at night. Elderly patients told me, when I found them in beds soaked from head to toe, that they "dare not ring the bell at night when certain people were on". On occasions when I saw that patients had been handled roughly and reported this, I was told that I had imagined it. I have always known that my primary loyalty is to my patients, and on the surface that appears clear cut. Never in my wildest imagination would I have been able to imagine the real complexity of deciding to whistleblow.

I can honestly say that the day two years ago on which I did this deed changed my life forever. I was promised total confidentiality; but within a hour of my meeting with the senior nurse, my ward manager was summoned to the senior nurses' office, returned to the unit, and told one of my colleagues that I had whistleblown. From that moment on an "anti me" campaign began. I dreaded working if I was on with only staff who were under review because they would isolate and ignore me, turn their backs while I was giving handover, make nasty remarks, and accuse me constantly of "spoiling"the patients. I twice applied for a vacant post; and even though I fulfilled all of the criteria, and was actually often left completely in charge of the unit (and therefore already doing the job I was applying for), I was told I needed more time as I had a problem using the line management system when placing a complaint.

I have written to management outlining my bad experience as a whistleblower. I have put forward suggestions of how whistleblowing could become unnecessary through clinical supervision and/or internal procedures that would support staff and address their concerns. I tried and utilized all the appropriate channels available to me within this system before deciding to make what was the hardest decision of my professional life. I willingly laid myself and my own practice open to scrutiny and other unpleasant possibilities because I could not live with the alternative. I did this not because I am a better nurse than any of my colleagues who declined (because I am not) but because of who I am and where I'm coming from.

It's been brilliant just being able to [write] about it. Since the day I did the "wicked deed" (as I think of it in my mind), no one in management in my organization has asked me how I am coping with what I had to do.

On a more positive note, my saving grace has been the colleagues who support me. Though they are unable to join me in whistleblowing (which I fully understand), they constantly remind me that the elderly patients in our care are actually getting better care now that the unit is under close scrutiny. Though things are far from completely satisfactory, this better care is a good enough reason for me to continue to carry on, though I know I will need to leave when it's all over.