‘Boys club culture’ in parts of ambulance service

SECAMB vehicles SUS-140228-090646001
SECAMB vehicles SUS-140228-090646001

A ‘boys club culture’ exists in parts of Sussex’s ambulance service according to a consistent view within the organisation, a report has found.

Staff at South East Coast Ambulance Service (SECAmb) raised concerns about a ‘culture of bullying and harassment’ during and following an inspection by health regulator the Care Quality Commission in early 2016.

The NHS trust then commissioned an independent report to help tackle the issue from Duncan Lewis, a professor at Plymouth University, which was published today (Friday August 4)

After interviews, focus groups, and surveys Professor Lewis found that within SECAmb there is a ‘consistent view’ that in some parts of the trust’s operations a ‘boys club culture exists’.

His report explains how researchers heard from several sources about ‘overt and covert sexualised behaviour’, with some female staff raising incidents where sexual favours were sought for career progression, while others were ‘hounded by managers seeking sexual favours for personal reasons’.

Female staff also highlighted times when they were slapped on the bottom and demeaned by ‘highly sexualised gazing’ in front of colleagues and even patients.

Others talked about ‘sexual predators’ among male colleagues who ‘groomed students’.

The report concluded: “Whilst the researchers cannot confirm with certainty that such sexualised behaviours were commonplace, these are not isolated incidents and require proper investigation by SECAMB officers.

“In any workplace, such behaviours are wholly unacceptable and must be eradicated, being not only outside of principles of common decency, but also illegal and potentially putting individuals, SECAMB and the wider NHS at significant litigious risk.”

Responding to the report, SECAmb said the behaviours identified were ‘unacceptable’ and HR action was being taken against individuals where necessary.

Daren Mochrie, chief executive at SECAmb, said: “I would like to thank Professor Lewis for his expertise in writing this report, although I am truly disappointed and upset that so many of our staff have experienced bullying and disrespectful behaviour in the workplace.

“In the time since my appointment in April this year, it has been very clear to me that SECAmb is full of extremely dedicated and professional people who are concerned about caring for their patients as well as each other.

“However, I was also aware that the trust is facing a number of challenges and areas where vital improvements need to be made.

“One such area was high reported levels of bullying and harassment evidenced by our staff survey and from last year’s CQC inspection.

“We chose to commission this independent report to help us address this worrying issue. The behaviours it describes are completely unacceptable and will not be tolerated, in any sense and at any level, moving forward.”

Richard Foster, chairman at SECAmb, added: “I and the whole board take the findings of the report extremely seriously. It is now important that we work closely with staff to build a very different workplace, where all staff will be supported and where poor behaviours will not be tolerated.”

Around 2,000 staff participated in the research with more than 40 per cent of respondents reporting some experience of bullying in the last 12 months.

The report found that bullying and harassment was a ‘genuine and serious problem to be addressed urgently’, with common behaviours including high workloads, SECAmb procedures not being followed, employees being excessively monitored, and having their opinions and views ignored.

Around half of staff reported ‘being treated in a disrespectful or rude way’ and more than one third have experienced ‘intimidating behaviour from people at work’ and ‘feeling threatened in any way while at work’.

Roughly a third of employees reported regular exposure to gossip/rumours, being insulted, being excluded by others in their group, while a quarter of people have been teased/mocked or encountered jokes which go too far or have been subjected to persistent criticism.

Employees raised incidents of being shouted at publicly, bellowed at, or belittled in front of others.

Some staff referred to the leadership as ‘militaristic’ in style, which the report said can be appropriate in emergency incidents ‘but is not conducive to an effective leadership style for SECAmb’.

Meanwhile most employees believe the trust has a ‘complaining and reporting’ culture where instead of colleagues speaking to each other when conflicts have arisen, there was a tradition of formally complaining and reporting actions through grievances.

The report said: “We heard numerous counts where grievances, suspensions and disciplinary actions resulted in lengthy and upsetting investigations, often taking lengthy periods to resolve.

“This culture of grievance/counter grievance is evidence of the toxicity that exists in some parts of SECAMB.”

SECAmb’s leadership said they would be invited staff to join a number of focus groups in the next few weeks as they looked to identify solutions and come up with a comprehensive action plan.