THE former head of NHS HR for Argyll and Bute's health and social care partnership has described the organisation as an "absolute nest of vipers", as he becomes the first victim of bullying to be compensated.

Sandy Wilkie, 57, said he wants to speak out about his own experience "to put an end" to a culture that he says is damaging both staff and patients.

Mr Wilkie is the first of around 300 current and former employees to settle with NHS Highland as a result of the 'healing process' set up in the wake of 2019's damning Sturrock Report, which concluded that "many hundreds" of staff had experienced inappropriate behaviour including workplace bullying and harassment, with some suffering "serious harm and trauma".

ANALYSIS: Why Argyll and Bute's bullying victims still feel silenced 

The controversy contributed to an overhaul of the senior leadership team based in Inverness, but QC John Sturrock - whose review focused on north Highland - warned of specific problems blighting the Argyll and Bute region, which overlaps with a separate council area.

Mr Sturrock described intimidating behaviour by some senior managers, decisions being taken without consulting staff that left them “on the back foot and ill prepared”, as well as people living in small communities facing “victimisation, harassment, humiliation and rumour-spreading”.

Mr Sturrock said a "specific review of management practices in Argyll and Bute is necessary", adding: "Because the nature of some of the allegations implicate management at a very senior level, consideration should be given to this being conducted by someone from outside the area who is viewed as wholly independent”.

To date, no independent review has been conducted despite mounting pressure from dozens of cross-party politicians and trade union leaders.

Mr Wilkie, who was a member of the HSCP's senior leadership team, is the first of the Argyll and Bute victims to speak publicly about his experiences.

He left with a basic severance earlier this year is expected to receive damages worth upwards of £50,000 after his case was escalated to NHS Highland's remuneration committee, but told the Herald he wants to speak out before being gagged by an Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA).

Mr Wilkie, an award-winning HR professional with more than 20 years' experience, joined the HSCP in October 2017.

Within a year, however, he was signed off with depression and anxiety which he blames on being repeatedly "undermined" by senior NHS and council colleagues.

Mr Wilkie returned to work in February 2019 but believes he was targeted in part due to his mental health.

READ MORE: Argyll and Bute staff 'scared for careers' if they whistleblow over bullying

In May that year discovered that two senior executives within the health board and HSCP had drawn up plans, within six days' of his sick leave, to delete his role through an HR merger with Argyll and Bute Council.

"It was not a proper piece of organisational change, they should have come up with options, not a single solution," said Mr Wilkie.

From then on, he describes being intentionally "overloaded with work", before being placed on special leave in September 2019 as a result of the HR restructure and taking redundancy in February this year.

Amid the turmoil, Mr Wilkie's marriage broke down and he was forced to cash in his NHS pension 11 years early and take a £9-an-hour job as a kitchen porter.

He has since left North Argyll - where he planned to retire - to start a new life as a freelance consultant in the north of England.

But he is alarmed that abuses are continuing and many of the perpetrators of bullying remain in post.

He said: "I was removed from my job while I was off with depression. I was quite seriously ill, then I came back to be undermined, overloaded, and eventually severed.

"Pushing people with mental health issues out on sick leave is a dangerous game to play. It's Russian roulette with lives.

"The new chief executive of NHS Highland is aware of this. She's very good, and she's trying to sort it out, but it's a huge mess.

"The ones who have spoken up against it have been sidelined. One or two have gone already out of disgust or fear.

"It's an absolute nest of vipers in the Argyll and Bute senior leadership team."

Mr Wilkie added that everything could be "swept under the carpet" as victims are paid off and given NDAs.

"What I want to do now by speaking out is to make this stop," said Mr Wilkie.

He added: "I'm the first of around 300 victims: that's a big bill for NHS Highland, and a big embarrassment for the Scottish Government."

READ MORE: Warning over 'grossly concerning' staff survey into bullying in Argyll and Bute 

Dougie Philand, an independent councillor for Mid-Argyll, who has been campaigning for an independent inquiry into the HSCP, said: "We know what has been happening but so many staff have felt afraid to put their head above the parapet for fear of repercussions.

"What Sandy has said adds to the call for an inquiry because we now have someone who has been bullied and moved from his employment by the same people who are saying that things are moving forward and that bullying is being addressed.

"Only last night I got another call from someone who suffered depression from the way they have been treated and they are currently in employment.

"How on earth can those who have bullied undertake a neutral investigation when staff are in fear?

"At a time of Covid, our staff are already working above and beyond their duty but to be bullied at the same time or work in fear, how can this be good for patient care?"

Dr Jan Calder, a locum consultant psychiatrist who worked in Argyll and Bute from 2018 to 2019, but has previously claimed she was bullied out of her post for challenging plans to close a dementia unit, called on the Health Secretary to intervene.

She said: "The toxic bullying by management in Argyll and Bute, in both health and social care, has been known to those people working and living there for years.

"This is perpetrated by people, known and named individuals, and this will become clearer as the healing process goes on.

"There is growing evidence now to support an independent review into management culture."

Joanna Macdonald, chief officer for Argyll and Bute HSCP, said it "would not be appropriate" due to staff confidentiality to comment on individual employees, but said that the "health and wellbeing of staff is a priority for the organisation".

She added: "One of the recommendations from the Sturrock Report was to carry out a Culture Survey for NHS Highland staff in Argyll and Bute and this took place in February and March this year.

"The findings from the Survey were published in May and we offered a sincere apology to colleagues who had indicated that they had experienced bullying and harassment and we immediately put in place a 100 day action plan to address the key findings.

"We also set up an Argyll and Bute Culture Group, consisting of representatives from staff, managers, stakeholders and unions, which is focussed on the delivery of the action plan, identifying local priorities in relation to the Culture Programme and identifying any training and development needs that are required."