THERE’S still “a long way to go” before Argyll and Bute Council and NHS Highland can say they have properly tackled a culture of bullying within the area’s health and social care services.

That’s the view of two former employees with the organisation after the publication of “damning” reports into the way the Argyll and Bute health and social care partnership (HSCP) dealt with employees’ concerns at the way they were being treated by management.

Helensburgh residents Dr Jan Calder, a former locum consultant psychiatrist with NHS Highland, and Melani Erlank, a former social worker with Argyll and Bute Council, spoke out after two reports by an independent review panel looking at past and present employees’ concerns over a culture of bullying at the HSCP and at NHS Highland more generally.

The “organisational learnings reports” produced by the independent panel were considered by members of the HSCP’s board at a meeting last Wednesday.

Mrs Erlank was recently awarded almost £27,000 for unfair dismissal after she took Argyll and Bute Council to an employment tribunal.

She was sacked by the council in September 2019 after a long-running dispute in which she claimed to have been bullied by her manager.

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Dr Calder worked for the HSCP in 2018 and 2019, but told the Advertiser she felt bullied out of her role after she opposed plans to close a dementia ward at Mid Argyll Hospital.

The independent panel said testimony from staff had found “an organisational culture in NHS Highland which was centralist and dictatorial with little delegated decision making”, and that the panel had “heard many instances where leaders were reactionary and not dealing with difficult relationship issues”.

The independent panel was called in by NHS Highland as part of its ‘healing process’ in response to staff concerns over the organisation’s poor management culture.

But Dr Calder and Mrs Erlank said they didn’t believe the HSCP had gone far enough in tackling the issue.

In a joint statement they said: “The ‘Healing Process’ is management’s way of dealing with the problem, but the way in which they are doing it makes it impossible to know what happens to the perpetrators.

“All we know is what we hear along the grapevine. It is therefore difficult to see how healing can take place when your career has been affected or ended while the perpetrator gets promoted.

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“The way they have dealt with this is likely to perpetuate the problem rather than solve it, because managers and HR will again get the message that they can get away with their conduct, even though it has now become public knowledge that there is a huge problem.

“The reports and their recommendations are damning. The focus remains on NHS Highland with insufficient independent review of management practices in Argyll and Bute HSCP, where concerns are still ongoing.

“A healthy workplace allows for differences of opinion without personal cost to the individuals who challenge or express different opinions. NHSH and Argyll and Bute Council have a long way to go.

“For some, like ourselves, these recommendations come too late but hopefully this process will pave the way for better experiences for my colleagues who remain employed by Argyll and Bute and NHS Highland.”

An NHS Highland spokesperson said: “It is an important step in our healing and rebuilding trust to publish these independent and external reports in full, alongside our report on progress with the recommendation.

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“NHS Highland recognises and accepts the recommendations of the IRP and we repeat our sincere apology to anyone who experienced bullying or inappropriate behaviour whilst working for NHS Highland.

“We are now actively focussing on the future, by learning from the past, so whilst noting the significant progress already made against a number of the recommendations, there is an ongoing, substantial and long-term programme of work underway to address this completely.

“We are committed to improving the experience of NHS Highland, through our culture work and the personal commitment of our colleagues and leaders to work in a kind and compassionate way with one another. We will continue to invest in the resource and time needed to deliver this, which is embedded into our 2021-22 strategy, vision and objectives, with our aspiration to be a ‘Great Place to Work’.

“We will bring a full update on the progress against these recommendations as well as those of the Sturrock Report, plus our detailed culture programme plans for the next 12 months and beyond, to the May 2021 board meeting.”