Nurses are resorting to whistleblowing channels to highlight staff shortages in Scotland’s biggest health board, as unions warn the national picture is “critical”.

The number of employee complaints investigated by NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde has doubled this year, figures show.

The majority of issues raised by whistleblowers that were either fully or partially upheld related to concerns about staffing levels.

New National Whistleblowing Standards were launched on April 1 last year, which require boards to publish the number of cases, performance information, and an overview of each complaint.

The health board said the higher volume of cases in the most recent quarter may be due to increased attention and awareness of procedures following the changes.

Whistleblowing should be a last resort

Figures show the health board investigated 29 whistleblower complaints from April 2021-2022, with 14 related to hospitals, nine designated “corporate” and two involving the prison service.

Six complaints about staff shortages were either partially upheld or upheld.

The report into one case, which was upheld fully, concludes that staff must receive appropriate breaks and time to attend “reflective practice sessions”.

NHS GGC said it has “robust processes” in place to monitor and manage staff levels.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said the fact that staff were having to resort to the whistleblowing policy to raise concerns about safe staffing levels was “extremely worrying”.

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Five other whistleblower complaints about staff shortages were partially upheld, including one which also raises concerns about beds exceeding the maximum number on a ward,

Recommendations include improvements to workforce planning and better communication between management and staff “particularly those impacted directly by staff shortages, for reassurance”.

One complaint raising concerns about shortages and the impact on patient care was not taken forward because “clarity could not be sought” as the complaint was anonymous.

Health Secretary Humza Yousaf announced earlier this month that the Scottish Government would invest more than £600 million on a package that includes plans to recruit 1,000 additional staff over the winter.

Of that, a total of £8m will be specifically injected into recruiting nurses from overseas in efforts to “expand” the workforce available to support health boards.

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Norman Provan, Associate Director, Employment Relations, RCN Scotland, said: “The fact that staff are having to resort to the whistleblowing policy to raise concerns about safe staffing levels and being able to receive appropriate breaks is extremely worrying. 

“Whistleblowing should be the last resort. 

“Staff should be able to raise concerns locally with the confidence that they will be listened to and acted upon. 

“We know nurse staffing is at critical levels across Scotland’s NHS with over 6,000 nursing and midwifery posts unfilled. 

“RCN members in NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde have been raising their concerns regarding staffing levels and the impact on patient safety and staff wellbeing for some time, and met recently with the Chief Executive and Nurse Director to discuss these. 

“The health board must do more to ensure an open and honest workplace culture where staff feelsafe to raise concerns.” 

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NHS GGC launched inquiries into ten complaints from February to April 2022, compared to five in the first quarter of the financial year.

Two other complaints were upheld about parties held on wards where social distancing was not followed.

There were also an additional 19 cases received in the reporting period which were not taken forward because they did not meet the criteria for whistleblowing.

One complainant alleges that a colleague mocked a foreign employee’s accent and this was referred to Human Resources.

NHS GGC said that around 86% of Stage 1 complaints were dealt with within the target of ten days while 50% of the more complex Stage 2 issues were actioned before the target of 20 working days.

The board said it recognised that the time taken to investigate Stage 2 complaints was too long but said the average time to respond to cases had “markedly improved.”

Charles Vincent, NHS GGC’s Whistleblowing Champion said other boards were looking to learn from its procedures.

He said: “In meeting with the other Health Boards’ Whistleblowing Champions it has become apparent to me that NHSGGC’s whistleblowing reporting offers the highest levels of transparency and is very much the gold standard within Scotland.”

A board spokesman added: “We are grateful to all of our staff who are working so hard to deliver high-quality care under challenging circumstances.

"We have always been open and transparent that recruitment and retention of staff is a key priority to ensure we maintain safe staffing levels, and we have robust processes in place for monitoring and managing staffing levels.

"In recent weeks, we have recruited more than 700 newly qualified nurses and midwives to services across NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, in addition to further recent international recruitment successes.

"NHS GGC recently launched a six-month campaign to make staff aware of whistleblowing processes, to encourage them to speak up if they have concerns, and to support them through the process if they do."