Back to Bedlam

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“Some of us are fated to live in a box from which there is only temporary release. We of the damned-up spirits, of the thwarted feelings, of the blocked hearts, and the pent-up thoughts, we who long to blast out, flood forth in a torrent of rage or joy or even madness, but there is nowhere for us to go, nowhere in the world because no one will have us as we are. (Siri Hustvedt, The Summer Without Men)”

Grief is unpredictable.

Only now, have I started to experience the feeling of utter emptiness one moment, anger at being abandoned by my best friend who was my rock, and crucially, the desire to be with him and Elaine. The latter is what has landed me back in hospital. I was released too soon according to the Consultant, hence for a week now I have been back. When I found out by chance at Elaine’s memorial in Glasgow Cathedral, that I had been excluded from Donald’s funeral, that is when is started.

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What I needed was rest, quiet, and feeling that I was safe. These basics that I might have considered the fundamentals of “care” were conspicuous by their absence. I was initially in a mixed ward dominated by two characters who were self-confessed drug dealers. At least one of whom I know is fit for discharge but awaiting housing. They were constantly abusive, sexist, ageist, disablist, and racist. They were anti-white, anti-Asian and particularly abusive to African staff and patients.

A friend of mine who was on the ward I happened to have known for at least 10 years from elsewhere. She is a beautiful, intelligent African woman. She was harassed by the two ward-based gangsters for “sitting at the WHITE table”. They were from the Caribbean so had a loathing of Africans,. We had a charming older Asian gentleman on the ward who was always turned out in his suit and tie. They took his walking stick from him and started pretending to be bent over, old men. It was heart breaking to watch, and it happened right in front of staff at reception. They did nothing. Selective Blindness Disorder would be my diagnosis.

The bellowing was absolutely constant. They would play abusive rap music at top volume during meal times when we had not choice other than to be together.

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How does one manage extreme loss and associated depression in such a background? I was terrified. At least, as an informal patient, I could go out. It was coming back that was the problem. I had such a panic attack on the bus on the way back I thought I was having a heart attack and so did the other passengers.

These two were particularly fond of invading the space of female patients. I found myself having to describe my uterine bleed in front of an audience of these men.

Meds were done over a counter in a queue. These two would stand listening over my shoulder so they know all about my health issues. They diagnosed me themselves as being a “fat, ugly, white pig”. I am very self conscious about the now visible enormous fibroid. I hate my appearance anyway and so they managed of course to go straight for my Achilles heel.

Vital signs including weight were also taken in a public space in the reception area with the results shouted from one member of staff to another who would write them down. I refused to go through this public spectacle, and was met with a sigh and extreme reluctance.

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Likewise my request to have my daily bag search to be done in private was met with resistance even after the CEO had intervened and my consultant assured me I could have privacy. The “system” was that I was expected to have my bag searched on arrival back on the ward by offloading, say, things from home such as underwear & the range of pads I need for uterine bleed on the reception counter. This would have been highly entertaining for the ward Underworld. I asked for it to be carried out in in private. Again this request was met with extreme unwillingness on.

My rape trauma is uppermost in my mind right now due to all the gynae treatment I am having. During those consultations, I can freeze and be completely unable to move. I try to move my arm but it won’t obey. Being barged into and otherwise physically invaded by large men was beyond intolerable. I was drowning in grief and the ward atmosphere weighed me down even further.

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Staff reactions varied. They would tell them to stop which was about as effective as a cholcolate kettle. One, a Ghanaian to whom they referred as a “monkey” would explode in anger. That gave this pair the extra impetus for the whole thing to escalate further. I was waiting for physical violence to break out ALL the time.
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My excellent consultant and others came up with a plan. The two would be separated as they got worse when they were together. They would be moved to different wards although this was passing the problem on as there only mixed wards in the hospital. Another group of women would be equally traumatised. During my trip home I felt for once safe coming back. However, the first thing I saw was the two of them up to their usual hate speech. They had NOT been moved and were not going to be. This I found out was without the knowledge of the Consultant. I was moved to another ward and…found there was no room in the Women’s Area which had been a refuge in the previous ward. Now I had no refuge at all. I was also right outside the nurses’ station meaning I had shouting, loud laughter, patient details being relayed into my room meaning confidentiality is non-existent. I need peace and quiet, not the cacophony of patients and staff all shouting at once.

I could not believe I had been moved for my own safety to an even less safe ward in which there was no safe haven. Out of the frying pan into the fire comes to mind. That first night there, I sat on the floor and cried my eyes out I couldn’t even Tweet other than pictures to try to get over how I felt.
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Luckily, the men on the ward have been lovely. I had dinner with three of them last night and we had such an interesting conversation. This would NEVER have happened on the other ward. I am aware that anything could change in these environments on the head of a pin.

This is NOT the problem of one Trust. It is system-wide. Lack of staffing means people are already stretched to the limit so spending their whole time trying to manage anti social behaviour and deal with the effects of the abuse on patients and other staff, has created a pressure-cooker atmosphere. Some deal with this by becoming completely shut off and merely go through the motions via endless “checks”. There are NOT checks as to whether we are feeling alright or might need support, they are simply to record our presence on the ward. They are a useful means for staff to avoid actually having to feel anything.

I read this excellent blog https://grumblingappendix.wordpress.com/2014/01/21/ticks-all-the-boxes-the-rise-and-rise-of-defensive-nursing/ from which I now quote.

One of these less palatable consequences is extension of risk aversion out of the realm of physical risks and into the realm of communication. Where nurses’ mindset is conditioned by the prioritising of risk minimisation, fear of upsetting someone by ‘saying the wrong thing’ becomes entirely justifiable. From there, it’s a short step to ducking out of meaningful communication altogether, and taking refuge in ‘this important paperwork I’ve got to get through’. An even bigger problem is that all the box-ticking and form-filling potentially reduces the nurse’s subconscious conceptualisation of the patient to nothing more than an atomised collection of checklists and discourages nurses from original thinking.

The checks done by rote with little or no humanity can have dreadful consequences on patient dignity. A ward friend has given me permission to write about what happened to her last week. She had come out of the shower and was heading across the room naked to pick up towels and she found she was being observed through the window on the door by a male member of staff clipboard in hand doing his “checks”. Dignity is way down the list when it comes to the priority of ticking boxes.

The CQC states this about right to patient dignity:

People have a right to feel and be safe while accessing treatment in mental health wards. As the quality regulator, our priority is to ensure that people using healthcare services are kept safe and that their privacy and dignity are maintained. This means ensuring that patients are protected from sexual safety incidents, and supporting patients who may behave inappropriately.

They have clearly failed in bringing these fine words into reality

I propose:

  • That more training is carried out in de-escalation techniques.

  • That wards are adequately staffed by qualified permanent staff rather than seemingly random Bank Staff

  • That a specific focus be made in existing Trauma-informed training on the potential impact on women who have experienced sexual abuse from being on mixed wards. This training should be patient-led.

  • That it is acknowledged that having female-only areas is far from sufficient due to the need to share space for meals, queuing for medicine, seeing doctors etc.

  • That practical steps are taken to ensure dignity eg vital signs and bag searches  take place in private, and these measures be brought in without delay.

  • That a real commitment be made to eradicate mixed sex wards altogether.

For those wishing to make a start, please consider signing this petition started by Rivkah Grant @Rivkah_g after her own horrific experiences on mixed wards:

“Psychiatric wards are still allowed to be mixed-sex meaning patients are unable to get food, drink, medication, see visitors or the doctor without going through mixed-sex areas. This can be distressing especially for those who have already been through trauma in a ward in the past. This must change.

I have been to mixed-sex wards and have spoken with many people about the problems these cause. There is no room in mental health care for such places. These are not safe places for the vulnerable.”

https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/260312

And her very recent blog on her experiences which are actually worse than mine given that my Trust to engage with me rather than rough me up….

https://lawanddisordered.com/2019/06/29/where-are-our-safe-spaces/

As for me now, I remain very weak and incredibly sad over so much loss. It is enough some days just to put one foot in front of the other. I am emotionally and physically drained but I must try to keep going as there is much to be done.
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Hidden truths, unspoken lies.

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Last week the report into the needless deaths at Gosport Memorial Hospital was published. It revealed that at least 450 lives of patients admitted to this hospital were shortened ie in Plain English, people died, due to inappropriate prescribing of heavy-duty opiates. In a hard-hitting foreword to the report, the Chair of the Independent Inquiry the Rt Reverend James Jones uses terms sadly very familiar to harmed patients and families, and to those of us deemed “whistleblowers”, “troublemakers” and “vexatious complainers”. These include “obfuscation”, “closing of ranks”, “betrayal”, “powerless”, “anger”, and “frustration”. I have not experienced direct harm in the same way as these families, but being of the “speak truth to power” type, I am painfully aware of these terms.

What has come out has left me with a deeply unsettling feeling of deja vu and an equally intense foreboding for the future.

I have a reputation for a clearly reckless tendency to say when the Emperor is in a state of undress, and have not hesitated to do so in my sometimes life-draining experience of working as an “outsider inside”.  I have done so for years within the NHS and other healthcare organisations such as the Kings Fund who, despite being nominally “independent”, in fact tend to mirror exactly the culture about which they claim to be “thinktanking”. Perhaps therefore it is no surprise that I am burnt out, worn out and only starting to emerge over the side of the rusty skip onto which I have been chucked.

It came as something of a surprise therefore to be approached by two radio stations for my views on Gosport. I did not relish this and had to give some thought as to whether to agree. In the end, I decided that those of us who feel able to speak out, must use every opportunity to get our points across. As I am not directly affected by the outrage at Gosport, it is not easy to dismiss me as “angry brigade” which is what I know happened to the families raising concerns. I have seen this happen time and time again. People are unheard. People’s anger and frustration builds up, becomes embedded and in the absence of an outlet, can boil over leaving the person unable to trust anyone in authority at all. This plays right into the hands of those in the system as it becomes much easier to negate and shove in the “difficult patient/carer” box. And so the merry-go-round spins on…

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And so I found myself being interviewed by Radio Scotland and by Julia Hartley-Brewer on Talk Radio with which I had not been familiar. Julia HB was all too familiar. It was going to be a challenge,  as our views on most things are at polar opposites.

I think I managed to get over my views but we were of course limited by time constraints so I decided it merited a blog. This is a complex issue that goes back decades and is about deeply ingrained cultural norms, attitudes and group-think. I will attempt to unravel my spaghetti-headed thoughts on the whole thing:

I am shocked at the scale of what the inquiry unearthed but sadly, not surprised. Both through being a long-term patient, and until I became ill again with work-related stress, a consultant to healthcare organisations, I have gained a wide perspective of the culture of the NHS. Despite the rhetoric, it remains a very defensive culture and I believe this defensiveness is due in no small part, to fear.

People genuinely are afraid to speak out and they are right to be, as those who blow the whistle often face dire consequences. Also in a target-driven, highly pressured culture where there is significant bullying in places, it has been demonstrated that even the most compassionate people get cut off from their own values. Mid Staffs was a case in point. Families who have experienced avoidable harm, in my experience, do not want revenge or massive lawsuits and compensation, they want accountability and the assurance that this will not happen to any other family in future. These families are a source of real insight into what needs to change and can be a huge part of the solution if allowed to be. Trouble is, they tend to be seen as a threat and stonewalled. This fundamentally has to change.

I have over the years experienced excellent care delivered by dedicated staff often doing so under extremely difficult circumstances. I do not wish to be seen as attacking the NHS. In fact I am devoted to the principles on which the NHS is founded. It “belongs to the people”. National NHS organisations hold it, ostensibly, in trust for us, the citizens. It is essential therefore that they hear us and work with us, and that means when things are going well, and crucially, when they are not.

It is the latter part of this that causes problems of course.

The culture of defensiveness – the taking to the bunkers in times of crisis, the unwillingness to “wash dirty linen” in public – goes back way before even the twenty years since concerns started to be expressed regarding Gosport.

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In 1959, psychoanalyst Isabel Menzies-Lyth published a study of systems in hospitals describing the culture there as a defence mechanism against the anxieties raised by caring for people in life and death situations. The study looked at the behaviour of nurses on a highly pressurised teaching ward. There is much in this study of relevance to the debate still ongoing about NHS culture. Menzies-Lyth found that:

1. Efforts were made to create a distance between nurses and the patients. Instead of nurses concentrating on one or two patients they were required to do different tasks for different patients. This ensured that close relationships could not form and kept patients at a “safe” distance.

2. There was a tendency to depersonalise, categorise, and deny the existence of the patient as an individual. Beds would be made in the same way, and patients fed at the same time. Hospitals were highly controlled and regulated which offered real opportunities to hide behind procedures when faced with intensely emotional situations.

3. Staff often denied their own emotions. A “good nurse” was seen as a nurse who would not get too attached to a patient. Physical detachment achieved by the regular movement of nurses from one ward to another supported this psychological detachment.

4. Procedures and rituals were used to minimise the need to make decisions deemed too stressful and which had the potential to generate fear due to uncertainty.

5. Responsibility and accountability was deflected

6. There was a level of “purposeful obscurity” where it was not clear who was responsible or accountable for what and to whom. This enabled responsibility to be applied in general terms rather than directed at one individual.

8. Staff avoided the impact of responsibility by delegation to superiors. “Tasks,” she “were frequently forced upwards in the hierarchy so that all responsibility for their performance could be disclaimed.” Nurses tended to carry out mostly tasks well below their individual capabilities.

9.  There was a tendency to avoid change. “Change,” she wrote, “is an excursion into the unknown.” Terrible consequences might follow. It was easier to hide behind “we’ve always done it this way”.

One quote from this work which resonates today given the experiences of the late Dr Kate Granger when she became a patient leading to the #HelloMyNameIs  campaign is:

“By allowing for ritual task performance by depersonalising relations with the patients, by using organisational hierarchies, nurses contain their anxiety. Thus a patient becomes “the kidney in bed 14” or “the tracheotomy in ward B”. In this way, nurses limit the anxiety they would experience if each patient were to be dealt with as a full human being in need.”

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This report happens to be about nursing staff. I do not wish this to seem like an attack on nurses in particular. In fact in Gosport some nurses did try to alert management as to what was going on and got nowhere. However, others have acknowledged that they turned a blind eye and one is on record as saying she had no idea why she had done so. In truth, the tendencies referred to in the Menzies-Lyth study apply to any professional group working in an under-resourced, over-pressurised hierarchy particularly one subject to constant “reform”. It is little wonder that the constantly shifting sands contributed to the culture of fear which then manifested in the sort of behaviour observed by Menzies-Lyth.

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I should know.

My career before diagnosis with PTSD was in exactly such an environment. I did not work in the NHS but in a local authority. We were subjected to constant restructuring, having to apply for our own jobs, and to interference by elected politicians who created conflict as what they demanded was often not the same as what the management required. This rather chaotic environment created fertile soil for the growth of petty dictators who were lauded for “getting things done” in the sense that Mussolini got trains running on time. The impact on the human beings who were being placed under intolerable pressure to meet the targets imposed from above was glossed over. Our Chief Executive was a bully with deep insecurities particularly around those of us he deemed “intellectual” or “academic”. He had good reason for his paranoia. He was exposed (by myself and a colleague as it so happened) for having falsified all of his qualifications. That came after our trade union had exposed him as a bully and chief perpetrator of an organisation-wide culture of fear. He was not sacked. He knew where bodies were buried.

I too put up with a lot of it and indeed did turn a blind eye to unacceptable things like Councillors fiddling expenses, as I was absolutely devoted to the people in the communities overseas with whom I worked. My doctor kept begging me to leave for the sake of my physical and mental health. I could not countenance that as I believed I WAS my job. Without that identity, I simply did not exist. So I carried on. It was a disaster waiting to happen. My colleagues were killed in Belarus in a rather scandalous episode the circumstances of which I was expected to cover up. I could not do that with something of this level. I took to alcohol to create the level of dissociation required to keep going. I see this a lot in the NHS. NHS staff are well-represented in the AA meetings which I now attend.

One day, I was sitting in a management meeting. I was asked a question about one of the communities with which I was working, as I recall, in Zimbabwe. I realised that at that moment, I had NO opinion. I had become frozen. I did not care one way or the other. I knew then that something profoundly wrong had happened to my personality. I knew deep down that I cared deeply but I had become completely distanced from my own humanity. I packed up my desk that day and did not go back.

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When I first heard about Mid Staffs I was horrified of course. I asked myself how on earth could staff become so detached from the values that made them go into healthcare, that they would walk past clear instances of neglect and abuse.

It was extremely uncomfortable to reflect later on, that in fact, I had gone through the same process myself. And if it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone.

This is not to say that staff should not be accountable. Absolutely they must. However, we need to look at those at the top who are NOT on the front line, not subject to the consequences of their own management styles, and ultimately, paid enough to shoulder accountability. The problem is that the upper echelons of the NHS contain more than their fair share of narcissists who lack insight, empathy, and have become so detached, so convinced of their own importance, that they profoundly will not believe this song is about them, to quote Carly Simon.

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There are good people at those levels too who have generally survived through being in that grey area of being neither too openly good, nor openly bad. Despite the sound-bites to the contrary which emanate from the Transformista Cult, they do not rock boats, and they do not draw too much attention to themselves either good or bad. They have drifted upwards, unfettered by too much scandal, or too much success. They KNOW very often that the unacceptable is going on, but seem unwilling or unable to do anything about it. There were some very good people from the upper ranks of the NHS on the Expert Advisory Group who endeavoured to advise Jeremy Hunt on the design of the new Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch. I was a member. I received more than one message from these highly-paid individuals saying that I was the only one with the guts to express openly what they were all thinking. It reminded me of when I spoke out about the bullying in my old organisation along with a few other courageous/foolhardy types. The majority of people told us they were fully “behind us”. What they meant was a considerable way behind us, behind a wall made of bomb-proof concrete.

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I was asked on Radio Scotland what I believe the solution is…not an easy ask in a ten minute interview.

Firstly, I am NOT an expert. I am an observer. The outsider/inside role with a range of healthcare organisations has however, given me a genuine “helicopter view” of the current landscape. I have given up on trying to change the mindsets of the narcissists  at the top which is a waste of effort, or inject courage somehow into the veins of the good people at the top so that they start to risk saying it like it is.

I prefer to concentrate on the leaders of the future. I am given some hope when I meet with the new intakes of the NHS Graduate Scheme every year on their first day. They are very bright, their minds are open to new ideas, and they have not (yet) been got at. I like to think I am able to plant some seeds that in some maybe, just maybe, that will enable them to grow into leaders with integrity and the courage to speak truth to power, leaders who are not afraid to torpedo the boat if necessary rather than just conference-hop loudly proclaiming their radical “boat rocking” credentials but not doing anything that might disrupt the status quo.

A few years ago I worked with my first intake of Graduate Scheme trainees. I had yet to be aware that I seemed to be able to influence through the manner in which I shared my experiences as a patient. There was a very overwhelming response to what I said from the new trainees. Some came up to tell me what had motivated them to want to work in NHS management, some became tearful as they had only just realised the enormity of what they were doing and the potential to impact on the lives of ordinary people.

One trainee sent me an email during her first placement. She on her first ever night shift in A&E. She wrote:

“I just want you to know that I am remembering what you said in every patient that I see”.

This is why I choose to lay my painful experiences bare over and over again in the hope that in some small way I can make a difference. I must believe that it will. It is what makes me drag myself off the floor and somehow carry on.

The other key part of any solution will of course be a radical change in the way patients and families are perceived in the system. We are NOT the enemy. We are more than capable of understanding the reasons for errors, that human beings are fallible, and that staff are very often burnt out and drained. The tendency to retreat to the bunkers as soon as the shit heads towards the fan is doing NO-ONE any favours. I am painfully familiar now with the shut-down that happens when a failure or short-coming is exposed. Despite the fact that we would deeply respect professionals prepared to say “I got this wrong” and look at how to work different, very often the response is to batten down the hatches and we are met with a Berlin Wall of silence.

No wonder then, in a system so divided and divisive, we can be forced into Them and Us tribes.  Instead we need to be able to meet in the no-mans-land between the opposing armies as genuine partners, each with a deep understanding of what it is to walk in the shoes of the other.  This means that we must be present where the real power lies, at governance levels. We should not be limited to token patient story at the start of a board meeting, but as an equal member of the board itself.

Until this happens, we will continue to repeat the same mistakes. The NHS can’t afford this and neither can the citizens – the patients and families who stand to lose a great deal if, and indeed when, another Mid Staffs, another Southern Health, another Morecambe Bay, another Gosport hits the front pages.

Are you an NHS Leader hiding until it’s all over, or do you have the guts to free yourself and your subordinates from the merry-go-round?

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Sent to Coventry – an outsider inside reflects.

I will never forget the day I arrived in Coventry for what I assumed was a standard induction into my new freelance role as Transformation Fellow within the NHS England Horizons team.

I had not done regular paid work for 17 years having had to retire on ill-health grounds after being diagnosed with PTSD.  I had met Helen Bevan whose work I admired, at a social event. Within days after that I was contacted by members of her team offering me a position of one day per week. I was overjoyed. I felt a much-needed sense of worth return. The two colleagues with whom I spoke sounded really lovely. One in particular really understood about PTSD. I felt confident therefore that I could do this work safely and successfully.

It was arranged that I go to Coventry ostensibly to spend the day with the Helen. I assumed I would be shown round, introduced to the team and then have a practical discussion as to expectations on both sides and that there would be a conversation about support needs.

This could not have been further from what actually happened. I did not even have time to get my coat off and I was hurriedly shoved into a packed meeting room and all I could hear was Helen’s voice barking out instructions from what I now know is a spider phone. I can’t remember what they were talking about but she demanded my opinion. I was too freaked out at this stage to have an opinion on anything.

After that I was introduced to the ritual humiliation of the Monday morning Huddle. It was dressed up in terms of group hugs and ra ra cheerleading except the pom poms were bedraggled and they sought to mask that this was rather more an assassination squad than Madonna hugging her entourage before going on stage. I had NO idea what was happening. Helen was still in the ether virtually as though Big Sister was watching us. It was clear no-one knew why I was there and by this stage, neither did I.

I noticed already that the team responded to everything Helen said with clearly forced enthusiasm. Even the most hair-brained ideas were responded to by shouts of “love love love Helen” “awesome!” And the ubiquitous “FAB!”. However what she couldn’t see being in absentia, were their grimaces, the rolled eyes and the body language which screamed out “NO!”. These were early warning signs that I wish I had heeded but I was so determined to work again, to be part of a team, to be a worker among workers, a friend among friends.

It was clear also that my sudden arrival out of nowhere was causing distrust amongst the staff. They viewed me as this “friend of Helen” – a cat suddenly leaping from above among the pigeons. One was brave enough to approach me to say people did not know if they could trust me, whether I was some kind of plant ready to inform on them. I assured them I barely knew the woman but that the only way they were going to trust me was by them seeing me in action and realising hopefully that no, I was not a personal pal of the Great One and that no, running to her with tittle-tattle was not my style at all.

As for the Great Leader herself I finally got to ask her what she actually wanted me to do for this quite substantial daily fee. The response?

“I want you to sprinkle fairy dust on my work”.

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That’s clear then.

She then was perfectly frank in saying she wanted my network. She had a tendency to bring on board people with large social media following or popular blogs. It was almost as if whatever else we did was immaterial as long as our social media stats somehow bolstered HER ego (which did not require bolstering).

There was no discussion regarding likely support needs.

The day felt like being sucked into a toxic vortex, whirled around until I was incapacitated with vertigo then spat out again. I tottered out of there not quite sure what had just hit me.

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I had a chat with my coach after the visit. He asked if I had negotiated my fee, got clarity around the role and what was expected of me. No, basically, was the answer to all of that. I know I spent a large part of the day in tears as I was so overwhelmed. I just hoped that as time went on, things might become clearer.

The saving grace was the majority of the members of the team who were and are a lovely bunch. It is a pity they are not allowed to meet their full potential a lot of the time. It would seem there is a lot of brittleness at the top levels of the NHS and it does no good to draw attention to oneself either negatively or positively. The best thing is to achieve a faceless mediocrity and that way one can silently climb the ranks unnoticed.

I found the language used very odd. I had of course been out of the workforce for a very long time and suddenly I found myself immersed in Transformation-speak. My first experience before I started work there formally was a so-called “Thought Diversity Hot House”. I had misgivings already about this. It sounded a bit too much like Hot Tub for my liking and I was not ready to get in a tub with the majority of people there who included Simon Stevens. Some things are beyond even me.

This was a very shouty event. It was clearly meant to achieve a sort of Jerry Springer does Transformation tone. When I got there, there were feathers and felt tip pens on the table. I could see that it bode ill.

I withstood the Billy Graham rally tone until the last session before lunch. I was at a table of particularly serious clinicians. Our task, shouted at us, was to create something that might represent what we thought the NHS would look like in ten years time. My table commenced serious discussion on Quality Indicators and policy matters. I felt sure the whole thing was aimed at getting us revved up before lunch so in fact there was no actual serious purpose to the session. My suspicions were further confirmed when I glanced over at the next table who were busily making dogs out of balloons. At this point, I made a mental promise that if anyone at all started doing interpretive dance, I would not be seen for dust.

The teams started to feed back their “creations”. One lot plugged in a phone and so it began….music started and they began clapping and swaying. At this point I shot out the door along with a few other introverts. I was so shaken I ended up mainlining carbs at Carluccios in Waterloo once again with that “what just hit me?” feeling. It seemed like the entire leadership of the NHS were in that room and they were making dogs out of balloons and dancing like embarrassing uncles at weddings.

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It was SO familiar. As I downed my pasta I realised what it was. I was LIVING in W1A which was not fiction at all. It was a documentary of this team and what they seemed seriously to believe was the answer to the issues faced by the NHS. “I know, let’s make things out of feathers, pipe cleaners and hard boiled eggs. That’ll sort it”

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I know for sure I would not have coped in the realm of the Director of Better had it not been for my colleague Carol. We shared the same sense of humour and boy, did we need it.

On one occasion we were supposed to be mounting a takeover of Skipton House. Now a proper, spontaneous invasion in the style of the storming of the Bastille with the Great One being airlifted onto the roof by helicopter I could have handled, but this was of course stage-managed and to this day, I have no idea what it was meant to achieve. I know I had to join in a group photo holding up a cardboard lightbulb and expected to shout FAB! or some other over-excited infant-style yelp. I was very near the ear of Simon Stevens who was also holding up a cardboard lightbulb. I managed to whisper “what fresh Hell is this” in said ear just to reassure him we were not all doing acid during working hours.

Soon though I settled into actual work which involved writing up summaries of articles for the online publication “the Edge”. One stipulation was that we were not to write anything negative. This made it challenging when given drivel to summarise. I recall a video I had to review which featured an earnest Swede talking about Intersectionality with reference to the Kebab Pizza which had become popular in Sweden after the Turks took over the Italian pizza restaurants in Stockholm and lo and behold the resulting pizza became really popular with the Swedes. He then went on to talk about the Burqini which had been designed for Moslem women but ended up popular with Australians keen to avoid sunburn.

Now I could clearly see how relevant all this was to hard-pressed NHS staff, so decided to give it considerable thought. On a visit to my Dad up in Morayshire, I discovered the Scottish equivalent of the kebab pizza – the Haggis and Brie Panini. I took a photo of it and put it in the article. This was probably my most successful piece of writing. This says a lot. I was taking the piss. No-one noticed.

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One of the highlights was Change Day before it became FAB. I was deputised to be part of the entourage for the Great Leader and we had a TV crew in tow. We spent the day making sheer nuisances of ourselves in Kingston Hospital. We even invaded a board meeting with no warning and certain assumptions were made that everyone would know who we were. My role that day was handbag carrier. I decided to get on with it and realised I was the highest paid porter in the NHS.

In the absence, how inconvenient, of a baby being born so that the Leader could be filmed with it, she decided instead to start feeding older patients, donned a plastic apron and started almost forcing food down old ladies’ throats who were clearly managing rather well on their own and had no idea just who this strange woman in the plastic apron was.

It was bizarre and it was certainly NOT about patients. It was showbiz and it HAD to be a one woman show or there would be Hell to pay.

I don’t want to give the impression it was all negative. It was not. I had some wonderful experiences which were actually meaningless in terms of value to the NHS and general public, but fun for us nonetheless.

Take for example the 24-hour Transformathon. This was apparently “making history”. I think perhaps it should have read “making hysteria”. I co-hosted with the Leader and made sure we divided the sessions between us ensuring that anything high-profile went to Helen. Staff were worried about her insistence on doing all 24 hours. They had one member of staff who was very experienced in television and was concerned that the quality would be affected if the two hosts did not take a break at some point. Helen was insistent on doing the entire 24 hours. I was approached by senior members of her team begging me to challenge her. They described me as their “secret weapon” as none of them felt able to challenge her in any way. I used a technique whereby I talked about myself. “Helen, I will be taking a few hours off as I have listened to the experts who feel the quality will be affected and the event is NOT about me”. I did not think I was being at all subtle but it still did not permeate at all. I realised that we were dealing with a deep lack of insight.

I know the team were disappointed that this was again a one woman show with me as a sidekick and that their own considerable talents were being as usual under-utilised. Helen herself was so wound up at one point she snapped her fingers in my face. I realised out of the two of us I was the calm one and that is saying something. As I write I can feel how surreal that whole thing was. Did anything actually change as a result of what we did? Did it justify what it cost? You know, I have to say, I seriously doubt it.

By this time I had a contract arranged via Capita which was ostensibly to arrange training and development which is NOT what I was actually doing. I had to go through an arcane procurement process including answering questions as to whether I was providing polystyrene cups for my attendees at my non-existent training courses. I had to assure Capita that I had checked the passports of all my imaginary friends working with me on the courses. It made me distinctly uneasy particularly as I had sight of an email between Helen and team making clear that Capita were renowned for not paying people on time and expressing concern that I might say something about this publicly. This work was my only regular income and I regularly was left without any payment for months on end. This took its toll on my health as I had no means of paying bills and was defaulting on rent. I had already been homeless and I knew I would not survive that experience for a second time. I started to become very unwell physically and mentally due to the relentless pressure and uncertainty.

I had numerous admissions to the mental health unit from which I continued to work. At one point I was so physically ill as I could not afford to eat, that I ended up in a high dependency unit in Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. I remember tottering into the corridor hanging onto my drip stand making a call to Capita’s Polish call centre begging them to pay me. They had taken six months to do so. I was down to my last £10.

I would regularly return from Coventry so shattered I could not physically move from my front door to my sofa. I would sit on the floor by the front door until I mustered the strength to move the ten feet or so to my front room.

My contract was ended without my being told and I was instructed not to do any further work for this team. However, Helen insisted I continue as we were in the middle of a big project so for a time I was working long days, way longer than that for which I was contracted, with no idea whether I would be paid at all.

Was this a team where there was any degree of genuine psychological safety? No it certainly was not. I saw one colleague reduced to suicidal despair and they would often confide in me as they knew I understood.

Other colleagues talked about undergoing a profound personality change. Previously extroverted people found themselves turning inwards and becoming introverted. I will never forget a dearly respected colleague being taken down by the Leader. I believe her crime was to be too good at her work and was rightly being recognised for this. This made her a threat.

I would stress again this was not a psychologically safe culture for anyone never mind those of us with vulnerabilities due to health conditions.

There are many forms of bullying as I well know. This was gaslighting. This led to people either becoming Flying Monkeys and emulating the toxic behaviour, or starting to doubt themselves, to withdraw, to be afraid, ironically, to rock the boat.

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I am still suffering the consequences of this now.  I have felt so corroded by this experience that I have been declared by my medical team as unfit for work for the time being. I most certainly will not be so naively trusting in future when it comes to NHS national bodies. I was very nearly destroyed by this whole experience.

This is NOT meant as a personal attack. It is meant to illustrate that yes, patient and carer Leaders, or whatever you wish to call us, can add immense value to your work. However, for many if not all of us this is NOT merely a job. We cannot just leave it behind at the end of the working day. It requires us accessing and even reliving often highly traumatic experiences over and over in the hope that it leads to change and to improvement. It needs handling with extreme care.

It is NOT acceptable to employ us on a whim or even a hunch that is a right one. It requires a lot of consideration, a lot of clarity around expectations and absolutely vitally, it requires systems in place that enable timely payment at proper consultancy rates for consultancy level work. It is essential that conversations around support needs take place early on e.g what happens if we become unwell while at work? There must be due regard for Reasonable Adjustments in accordance with the law. I prefer to arrange my own travel for example as I get very anxious otherwise so I need to retain control over how I get from A to B. This was NOT permitted by this team despite the fact that by arranging my own travel, it would have SAVED the NHS a lot of money. In the end I covered all my own costs simply to ensure I could arrive at my destination in one piece.

I had a deep yearning to belong to the team as an equal. Because there was such a lack of clarity around why I was there, it was hard I believe for the team to see me as a colleague. I found missing out on some of the rituals that signify belonging really hard. I was asked to come to Coventry for a meeting. When I got there, at my own expense as usual, it was clear they had forgotten I was coming. The entire team went for afternoon tea to Helen’s home and I was left in the office. It was an isolating and surreal experience. Sometimes I was invited in on discussions, sometimes I was not. None of this was deliberate on the part of the team members but there needed to have been a lot more work done on clarifying exactly what my position was. I felt “othered” on a regular basis.

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Simon Stevens in the Five Year Forward View refers to us as “Renewable Energy”. In fact this is only true if due regard is given to the fact that we may bring with us all sorts of issues with which we may need support if we are to remain safe and give our best.

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I do not feel renewable, I feel expendable. I write after nearly losing my life in resus just over a week ago. The prolonged stress has re-activated my childhood epilepsy. My Consultant Neurologist believes this is due to the unbearable pressures exerted on me during my time with NHS England.

My motive in writing is that I want to make sure no-one else goes through what I did. This team was doing the right thing but went about it in the entirely the wrong way. As for me, I need to be far more business-like, less grateful for being asked, and take with a large pinch of salt any verbal promises made. Until such time as they are in writing, they must remain in the land of rainbows and unicorns which is how I came to see this team – well-meaning, dominated by the overwhelming personality of the Red Queen and occupying a realm that bore very little resemblance to reality.

I am at a crossroads now where I have to decide whether I can continue to work in healthcare. The toll this has taken on me has been massive. Thanks to Chelsea and Westminster Hospital I am here to tell the tale but I very nearly wasn’t.

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An unqualified success – a tale of workplace bullying.

Bullying has been a feature not only of my early work as the “brainy one” in my school, but also throughout my working life. My most recent experiences of this were at a well-known Healthcare Think Tank where a former mentor found he could not cope with what he saw as my unmerited “rise to fame”. It was a very destructive experience and I knew that a blind eye was being turned by the organisation involved. I also knew that at the base of this was HIS insecurity further warped out of shape by a serious dollop of jealousy.

It was ever thus but when I was younger I turned it in on myself. I assumed the negativity I was receiving was due to not being good enough so I tried harder and had even more spectacular results. I didn’t realise that this was only making them worse. They resented the mirror I shone on their mediocrity, on their insecurities.

Jealousy

I know that bullying is rife in any hierarchical organisation and the NHS is no exception. There remains a culture of delay, deny and defend. There is a LOT of fear around of speaking openly about this. In my talks to staff, I allude to my own experiences in Aberdeen City Council of the extreme end of workplace bullying. There are distinct parallels with the NHS. It was very hierarchical. There was a lot of brittle narcissism at upper levels. We were at the mercy not only of unethical managers but also unaccountable politicians. There were constant “restructurings”. The place was driven by fear. When I talk about my own experiences it seems to give NHS people permission to talk, often privately at the end of presentations, as it is of course NOT about the NHS. If you note any parallels I would have to say “you might think that, I could not possibly comment”.

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Here is a more in-depth account of the extreme bullying that went on in Aberdeen City Council in the 1990s:

Our Chief Executive Donald McDonald BA MSc MIEE MIME was placed in post by our Councillors chiefly one Councillor James Wyness who became Lord Provost, as he had a reputation for “getting things done”. The end always justified the means in their eyes.  For someone so apparently well-qualified, I found it really odd that he spoke a very bizarre form of English. He was from the Western Isles and so a lot of his English was a direct translation from the Gaelic. What I do know is he established a regime of fear which permeated throughout the entire organisation.

Bullying culture

I seemed to be immune personally from most of it as he needed me to persuade Mikhail Gorbachev to visit Aberdeen. He lashed out at me once and only once and that was enough to cause my skin on my neck to flare up as though I had been burned. I witnessed him pick up box files and throw them at a colleague. I remember him in the corridor late one night calling the Director of Personnel some choice names that owed more to Anglo-Saxon than Gaelic. I had to walk past them and I noticed he was able to break off immediately from being as high as a kite, berating my colleague within an inch of his life to address me like an avuncular uncle “now you get along home now. It’s very late” only to ratchet the volume straight back up again as soon as I had gone past. I remember thinking at the time that this was scarcely normal behaviour.

Fear would descend on the building as soon as he arrived. He had a highly paid whipping boy whom I shall call Phil. Phil was utterly terrified of Mr McDonald. He would do his bidding no matter what, even when his wife was having a miscarriage. Mr McDonald had noted a small mark on the 52 sets of papers for fully Council and required Phil to photocopy the whole lot all over again. Phil complied leaving his wife to go through her trauma alone.

We had purges too. McDonald suddenly took against a particular pen produced by the Tourist Board. If we had one of these in our possession we were to hand them in immediately or they would be Hell to pay. He actually hated the creator of said pen then Director of Aberdeen Tourist Board Gordon Hendry who seemed to fashion himself on Tom Selleck and certainly left McDonald behind in the charisma stakes. McDonald looked like a member of the mafia crossed with a farmer from the Outer Hebrides. No wonder he loathed Gordon. It manifested itself in an immediate obsession with removing from the planet all trace of this particular pen. Anyone caught with one was presumably off to the Gulag.

Our scouts would let us know when McDonald’s car pulled into the underground car park. The message would be relayed to the nerve centre where those of us who had daily contact with him worked. Phil for one would at this point start giving off an odour like an animal in fear.

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One morning I arrived in the office early. Phil was there almost in tears in hysteria. He quivered

There’s no milk for Mr McDonald’s tea.

Why don’t you nip down to the shop and get some before he comes?

Brilliant! Great. Yes. Brilliant!

And off he shot off down the spiral staircase like a Daddy Long Legs on speed. I imagine him stopping the traffic on Union Street and knocking old ladies out of the way in the queue in the shop in his drive to make sure all McDonald’s beverage needs were met.

McDonald duly arrived. Phil made tea to his precise specifications and did the usual routine of cowering outside the door trying to hear if McDonald was in there and whether he might be on the phone. He finally knocked and was summoned into the lair.

A few moments later, Phil shot out at great speed and I heard this bellowed behind him

Next time, if I want a fucking cup of tea I will fucking ask for one. 

That little scene was absolutely typical. He seemed inordinately paranoid and particularly of those he deemed “intellectuals”. We were soon to find out exactly why this was…

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As I mentioned in a previous blog, my Unison union representative finally reached the end of her tether and outed McDonald not only for failing to disclose his prison sentence for fraud and theft, but also stating loud and clear that “fear stalks the corridors of the Town House” in an endemic bullying culture all emanating from the top.

All Hell broke loose. McDonald called me into his office and seemed to be soliciting my support

You know I am not a bully don’t you?

bullying at work

The staff were divided between those of us brave or mad enough to come forward, and those who ran for cover. We held clandestine meetings in the Sportsmen’s Club and we had to knock three times (and ask for Rosie) before we could get in. We needed to be wary of spies. These gatherings were interesting almost as much for who wasn’t there as for who was not. The majority were in the latter category. An inquiry of sorts with a QC was called and we were asked to submit written statements. I had kept notes of incidents, dates and so forth where I witnessed colleagues being subjected to anything from verbal abuse to physical assault. I knew he was going to see the statements. I knew it could be career suicide. I wrote my statement and recall clearly standing at the post box hesitating and then thought

I have to be able to live with myself and my conscience. Would I expect colleagues to write in support for me if I went through something like this?

At that I shoved it into the post box. This led to an interview with the QC. When I read the typed version of what I had supposedly told him, it was so watered down as to be almost unrecognisable. I realise now how naïve I had been. The QC had been chosen specifically by our politicians for good reason. Perhaps there was a Masonic connection but what I do know is that he was not impartial. I also knew McDonald knew where bodies were buried. He had enough on each politician with any power to render them terrified that he would take them down with him.

He had managed to get away with a rap on the knuckles after the findings of the so-called QC but this was far from the end of the matter.

I had managed to arrange the Gorbachev visit. Here he is arriving at Aberdeen Airport.

Gorbachev

He delivered his “Peace Lecture” at 1k per table to a sell out audience at Aberdeen’s Beach Ballroom largely consisted of oil companies doing business with Russia. In addition to this commercial enterprise, he was to be given Freedom of the City. This required a lot of meaningless ceremonial and I could tell Mikhail Sergeyevich found a lot of it highly amusing. He was shaking with laughter after I told one of his aides that the Council had decided to name the dessert at the lunch after the ceremony “Perestroika Pudding”. I recall distinctly that he looked directly across at me after the aide whispered in his ear, took his dessert fork and stabbed the meringue dessert straight through the middle causing it to collapse.

My favourite moment of all though was during the Freedom Ceremony itself. Both Mikhail Sergeyevich and Donald McDonald were to sign a formal charter. Mr McDonald struggled to get the lid of the pen off. Time stood still as he fumbled with it trying with his meat pie fingers to sort it out but it would not budge. With an extremely quizzical expression, Mikhail Sergeyevich took the pen from McDonald and simply pulled the lid off, handing it back to him with a very wry smile.

Now the letters after McDonald’s name indicated that he was a highly qualified engineer with a Masters and membership of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers and Institute of Electrical Engineers. This would be quite a rare combination indication a man of exceptional ability. In the audience, was someone from the Aberdeen University Engineering Department. The inability of McDonald to get the lid of the pen off, planted the seed of suspicion in his mind. He didn’t know it yet but McDonald’s regime was about to collapse.

Next morning I came into work early to get a call from our Press Officer who had become a friend and fellow conspirator. She was in a state of high excitement so I legged it across the road to her office in the other building. The wife of the suspicious university lecturer was a friend of Margaret’s. She had contacted Margaret in the evening of the ceremony and told her that her husband had checked up on McDonald and discovered that not only was he NOT a member of any engineering Institute, he had no MSc. His entire CV had been a fabrication and he was the highest paid official in our City. No wonder he despised us “useless academics” so much. He knew he was a fake. He knew he could be found out at any time.

Now we needed to get the message out there. I had the task to get McDonald to sign a letter to show that on that date he was still using those letters after his name. Margaret had tipped off a journalist from the quality press in Scotland and I hot-footed it with the hot letter in a brown envelope. This is how the story got out. Margaret and I joined forces to leak it. It was ALWAYS the women who acted. Always.

After the article appeared in the Herald my Mum was worried that it might not get noticed so she photocopied it and distributed it to all the taxi drivers at the taxi rank in Back Wynd. Taxi drivers had been given a rough time by the Council so they were ready to get the news out. After that the press went haywire. The local tabloids picked it up. It was all over the papers and in the Town House we were buying every single edition in case there were any new details coming out.

McDonald’s dictatorship had collapsed. Was he punished? No, he was allowed to take early retirement with a massive payoff. Like I said, he knew where bodies were buried so justice was never really served, but he was gone. The Labour Group who had an overall majority voted through the payment with the exception of two Councillors who just could not countenance this payoff. They were both bullied by their Comrades and they both had breakdowns. One, a firefighter, ended up seriously ill in our local mental hospital. It did not do to have a conscience under that regime.

What interested me was the distinction between those of us wired to do the right thing, despite personal risk, and speak out, and those prepared to hide behind the wall until it was all over. I naively had an unshakeable belief that the truth would out. I still have it. Would I do the same again if I found myself in such an extreme situation? Actually I would. I might do it differently. I might make more of an effort to ensure my own safety but ultimately, I would not be able to live with myself unless I told the truth.

I had been told early on that I would never make a good local government officer as I had an “overdeveloped commitment to honesty”.  How right he was…..

Truthtelling