A TRADE union organiser has said the "culture of fear" plaguing staff in the NHS is the worst of any sector she has encountered in her 20 year career industrial relations.

Liz Gordon, GMB organiser for the Highland region, said claims in the Herald by top clinicians and GPs of a decade-long "culture of fear and intimidation" and a "practice of suppressing criticism" within the health board resonated with her members.

Read more: Medics blast 'culture of fear and intimidation' silencing concerns at NHS Highland

She said she has handled cases of employees victimised by being placed on so-called performance indicator programmes - or PIPs - sometimes for years at a time. Others who try to whistle-blow over issues such as staffing shortages are silenced, she said.

"If you raise your head, if you don't talk the right language, your manager will put you on a PIP," she said. "They can keep people on PIPs for a long time, they'll have review meetings and put you under pressure. I've got one member who's been on a PIP for two years.

"I have one NHS colleague who called me today who said when she desperately cried out for more resources she was told 'not to speak of it anymore, it wasn't going to happen'.

"If you speak out your career takes a sudden turn or goes sour. I've got examples of people being shouted at in car parks by senior members of staff when they raise concerns about the nursing levels.

"It takes all sorts of forms. It can be very subtle in that you just don't feel free to speak out, or it can be very overt - being shouted at.

"We [the GMB] came into NHS Highland six years ago. We cover every sector of industry, but I've never seen fear in a staff group like I see in the NHS. It's very, very difficult. We've been trying to raise the issue and lift the lid on the bullying culture for some time."

She said the issues raised at NHS Highland were mirrored "across the board", and required truly independent scrutiny.

She said: "I think we need an external review of any board that has run into trouble - it's not just NHS Highland. There needs to be an external mechanism that is entirely objective of any pressures brought to bear by the Scottish Government or the boards themselves."

Read more: Medics blast 'culture of fear and intimidation' silencing concerns at NHS Highland

It comes a week after MSPs were told that an unnamed junior doctor at NHS Tayside had committed suicide amid a culture of stress and bullying blighting medical training at the health board.

Days before, NHS Tayside's whistleblowers' champion, Munwar Hussain, had quit his post claiming that senior managers at NHS Tayside had failed to "take seriously" staff concerns relating to doctors in training, prescription doses, senior staff salaries and use of public funds.

In June, an independent report into why A&E waiting times were under-reported at NHS Lothian also criticised a culture of "bullying and harassment".

It found staff were pressured to prioritise patients about to breach the four-hour target rather than those with greater clinical need, but felt "unable to challenge this for fear of the consequences or their concerns were dismissed".

Previous attempts to encourage whistle-blowing have seen the creation of a confidential hotline for NHS employees in 2013, but the number of calls have dwindled amid criticism from campaigners that it is "completely toothless".

In 2015, then Health Secretary Shona Robison also pledged that an independent national officer will be appointed to review how cases of whistleblowing are handled in NHS Scotland. The post has yet to be created, however.

Read more: Medics blast 'culture of fear and intimidation' silencing concerns at NHS Highland

Rab Wilson, a former psychiatric nurse at NHS Ayrshire and Arran who won a five-year freedom of information battle to force the health board to disclose 56 serious incidents - including 40 avoidable patient deaths - said the system required a major overhaul.

Mr Wilson said: "The current contingencies for whistleblowers in NHS Scotland are a weeping, open sore. They are entirely ineffective, they destroy people’s careers and lives – and they contribute to the literally thousands of avoidable, preventable deaths in Scottish health care each year."

David Stewart, a Labour MSP for the Highlands and a member of Holyrood's Health and Sport Committee, said is seeking urgent meetings with chief executive Professor Elaine Mead and chairman David Alston to discuss the latest claims, and has also written to Health Secretary Jeane Freeman demanding that a "a light is shone into this dark corner".

He said: "As someone who lives and works in the NHS Highland region, I'm very saddened and concerned by these allegations.

"They need to be addressed, they need to be addressed in an independent way, and key staff like GPs and consultants who are raising these issues have to be reassured that action is being taken to resolve them. We do not want to find that we end up with a health service almost crippled because staff are concerned to raise issues at a senior level."

Dr Lewis Morrison, chair of BMA Scotland, said: “These latest reports are a further source of concern and underline that more needs to be done to address concerns about bullying across the NHS in Scotland."

Ms Freeman said she took "any assertions and allegations of bullying and harassment in any part of our health service very seriously indeed".

The Health Secretary said she had spoken to NHS Highland's chairman, David Alston, on Tuesday night to ask him to meet with the clinicians behind the letter to the Herald "as quickly as possible". A meeting is expected to take place today.

NHS Highland's medical director, Dr Rod Harvey, said a culture of bullying was something that he did not recognise personally.

He said he was "surprised and concerned" by the allegations, but added that the health board would investigate the claims.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The latest NHS dignity at work survey found that the majority of staff feel safe to raise whistleblowing concerns and that a large majority had not experienced bullying or harassment from colleagues.

"But we are clear that the welfare of NHS staff is paramount, and everything must be done to eradicate any level of bullying in the workplace and promote a culture where staff are confident to raise their concerns.

“That is why we are establishing an Independent National Whistleblowing Officer with statutory powers to make a real difference including authority to review local processes, decision making and outcomes.

"We have also introduced a whistleblowing helpline, improved training for managers and removed standard confidentiality clauses from settlement agreements across the NHS.”