For Mental Health Awareness Week, Protect CEO Liz Gardiner reflects on the significant stress and isolation many whistleblowers face and the negative impact this has on their mental health.
At Protect, we hear from around 3,000 whistleblowers each year on our free, confidential legal Advice Line. Callers raise concerns from charity governance to financial misconduct, from exam fraud to safeguarding of vulnerable people. Many are struggling to know whether or how they should raise concerns, are often feeling very lonely and worried about the impact on themselves if they do, and on the public interest if they don’t.
So, this mental health awareness week, spare a thought for the stress and loneliness that whistleblowers experience during their journey. It can be an isolating and emotionally difficult experience deciding to speak up, and stressful waiting for a response or an investigation to conclude. Many whistleblowers’ mental health suffers: one research study in the Netherlands found that the levels of depression and anxiety among whistleblowers was comparable to levels people reported soon after being involved in a major disaster.
In raising concerns whistleblowers are often drawing attention to others’ failings – sometimes those of their co-workers or their managers. It is natural to be defensive when criticised, but too often the response to the whistleblower is more extreme. We hear of whistleblowers who are ostracized, bullied, put on performance monitoring, sidelined or dismissed. In some rare cases, whistleblowers are threatened with physical violence simply for speaking up.
But we also hear of less deliberate retaliation. In an Australian study, more than 80% of whistleblowers reported a “collateral” repercussion from whistleblowing such as stress, isolation or performance issues.
A clear example of the impact on mental health is in cricketer Azeem Rafiq’s powerful witness statement, published by Parliament, in which he said the racism he experienced, and the response he received to raising concerns, left him close to taking his own life.
All organisations should value whistleblowers – they are an important risk management tool – detecting problems early and deterring others from wrongdoing, often saving employers both money and reputations. As an employer it is important to be aware that the risks to whistleblowers go beyond the obvious victimisation. What more could you do to support whistleblowers? For example, your employee assistance programme might provide support, or you might signpost whistleblowers to external sources of counselling and emotional support that they may access. Our new publication “Preventing Whistleblower Victimisation: a guide for employers” provides some helpful tools, including a risk assessment framework, for employers to use.