A LITTLE over two years ago, four whistleblowers took the explosive step of writing to the Herald to allege a "long-standing bullying culture" in NHS Highland.

The medics - a radiologist and three GPs - said they had felt compelled to speak out on behalf of colleagues who had been scared into silence by a "practice of suppressing criticism, which emanates from the very top of the organisation".

Crucially, they warned that this "culture of fear and intimidation" was having a detrimental impact not only on staff, but on the quality of care provided to patients.

An outpouring of media stories followed as staff, past and present, described a pressure cooker environment which had driven some experienced healthcare professionals to the brink of suicide and others to quit or retire early.

READ MORE: Former HR expert at Argyll and Bute describes leadership as 'nest of vipers'

Health Secretary Jeane Freeman commissioned QC John Sturrock to investigate and his report, published in May 2019, was grim reading.

He described staff feeling "sidelined, criticised, victimised, undermined and ostracised for raising matters of concern".

He described accounts of managers "promoted into posts that they do not have the skills for" or of posts "created to favour key individuals in favour with senior management...[who] are appointed to them without open competition".

Mr Sturrock criticised the "inappropriate and inconsistent use of suspension as a disciplinary tool", sometimes against staff who spoke out about patient care concerns only to find their own conduct or capability in question.

READ MORE: From 'inappropriate' use of suspensions to how NHS targets are driving bullying - Sturrock's key findings 

In some cases staff were suspended for months or years on full pay pending an investigation into dubious complaints against them - a waste of their own skills and taxpayers' money.

The culmination of all this has been the 'healing process': a chance for victims to tell their story, receive a formal apology, and be compensated.

NHS Highland initially said anyone seeking damages must pursue it through employment tribunals, before agreeing to payouts that will mostly range from £500 to £30,000 - with a few in the £60-£95,000 bracket, depending on salary bands and pension losses.

READ MORE: Sturrock review finds many staff suffered 'serious harm and trauma'

Still unresolved, however, is Mr Sturrock's recommendation for a specific independent inquiry into Argyll and Bute.

NHS Highland did carry out a Culture Survey in February and March, but critics say this only covered NHS employees within the Argyll and Bute HSCP - not council staff such as social care workers.

Of the 508 who responded, 344 said they had experienced bullying and harassment - 167 of them in the previous six months.

While the 'healing process' is open to all NHS Highland staff, the Sturrock Report's focus on north Highland and Inverness-based leadership has left those in Argyll and Bute feeling that their story has not yet been heard nor those responsible brought to account.