IS it ever worthwhile to whistleblow in the NHS?

For the clinicians who first spoke out just over a year ago about bullying and intimidation in NHS Highland, this week has been a bitter blow.

Despite the vindication of the independent Sturrock report in May this year, which concluded that many staff had suffered "serious harm and trauma" that led them to quit their jobs or retire early, victims were told there would be no compensation unless they successfully sued the health board at an employment tribunal.

NHS Highland argues that this is the "established legal process" for damages and that it is vital that it protects public funds.

READ MORE: Many staff suffered 'serious harm and trauma', finds Sturrock report 

That might seem fair and proper, except that taxpayers' money has already been needlessly frittered away on locums to fill posts left empty by experienced consultants who have described being driven out of their posts by the fear of recrimination if they missed targets, or because they were victimised for raising patient safety concerns.

If the NHS were free of costly incompetence (if only), then it might be easier to stomach hard-working doctors, surgeons and healthcare professionals left out of pocket because their careers were ended prematurely by management bullying being told that they should take their claims for compensation elsewhere.

At the height of the scandal, first revealed by the Herald in September last year, former employees spoke of being driven to the brink of suicide by workplace stress. Others gave up the NHS completely, heading overseas to places like Australia and New Zealand.

At a time when our health service is buckling under record vacancy rates for consultants and nurses, the last thing we can afford is to be losing experienced staff to bullying.

For many of those affected, too much time has passed now for them to be able to bring an employment tribunal - even if they wanted to.

NHS Highland insists that people have the right to challenge that time bar in court, but how many will feel able to risk that financial outlay with no guarantee they will ever get their day in court?

For those whose claims would be recent enough to qualify for a tribunal, it is still a daunting prospect: even if successful, claimants are only entitled to damages - not to having their legal fees reimbursed.

READ MORE: How inappropriate suspensions and targets led to culture of bullying 

Perhaps for some it is enough to know that by having spoken publicly or given evidence to the Sturrock review they have shone a light on a problem that had persisted too long.

Their voices have been heard and believed, and the health board's leadership overhauled.

But in being denied compensation, they could be forgiven for feeling that their suffering is still being dismissed and downplayed by those at the top.