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National Guardian data shows record number of health workers are speaking up – but more are facing detriment for doing so

Record numbers of health care workers in the NHS are speaking up to NHS Freedom to Speak Up Guardians – over 20,000 cases in 2020/21 – but more are facing detriment for doing so.

There are over 700 Freedom to Speak Up Guardians in NHS Trusts in England supporting healthcare workers to speak up about anything which impacts on their ability to do their job.  The number of cases brought to the Freedom to Speak Up Guardians last year represents a 26% increase on the previous year (16,199 cases).

Throughout the pandemic, workers have spoken up to Freedom to Speak Up Guardians about safety issues including staffing levels, PPE, social distancing, support for workers isolating, shielding or suffering from long Covid, and increased stress and exhaustion.

Patient safety of quality of care represented (18%) of cases  – down five percentage points from 2019/20. The proportion of cases (30.1%) involving elements of bullying and harassment was also lower, (35% in 2019/20). These decreases are a continuation of a trend identified last year.

The Annual Data findings from the National Guardian Office also found a rise in detrimental treatment of workers for speaking up. Over the course of the year the percentage of cases involving detriment increased from 2.7% in Q1 (April to June 2020) to 3.5% in Q4 (January to March 2021).

The data showed 11.7% of cases raised anonymously – which with an increase in case numbers represents an increase overall. The National Guardian Office says ‘this remains a concern, as workers speaking up anonymously may be an indicator of fear and mistrust in the system’ and we at Protect agree.

Dr Henrietta Hughes OBE, National Guardian for the NHS, said, “In this time of crisis, Freedom to Speak Up Guardians made sure that workers knew they were still listening and still there to support them. Over 84% of workers who gave feedback said that they would speak up again. 

“Yet, just as we see improvements, the pandemic has also highlighted how much more needs to be done. When leaders listen and act, great improvements can be made. Conversely, when leaders are defensive or victimise workers who speak up, it has a chilling effect on the whole system, putting patients and workers at risk of harm.”

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