Ambulance chief urged to quit over ‘toxic’ culture
CALLS have been made for the head of the West Country’s ambulance trust to resign after a report exposed a culture of sex, bullying and pornography within the organisation.
A boys’ club culture was discovered within the service, with women being referred to as ‘fresh meat’ and exposed to pornographic material.
Bullying and harassment were also reported by one in five staff, and an anonymous former employee said reporting incidents was almost impossible.
A former employee for the South Western Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust, based in Exeter, Devon, has now called for its chief executive, Ken Wenman, to resign.
The ex-worker said: “I was so proud to work for the NHS and felt I had so much to offer when I joined.
“But it took only days to realise what a toxic environment it was.
“The turnover of staff in the head office was unbelievable and hardly anyone left to further their career. It was just to escape.”
The employee said it became very difficult to report bullying and get a “good outcome”.
The turnover of staff in the head office was unbelievable FORMER EMPLOYEE
“I felt I had to leave before I did something stupid, but I had terrible survivor guilt afterwards knowing that I had walked away and left my team to deal with what I had faced for the previous year,” they said. “Yet still Mr Wenman keeps his position.”
The workplace culture study was commissioned by Mr Wenman in partnership with the trade union Unison and was independently carried out during a four-month period by Professor Duncan Lewis, of Longbow Associates Ltd, and Plymouth University. It detailed the full extent of the behaviour, with staff admitting to being ‘too scared’ to speak out and raise concerns.
Some of those who did report incidents were then victimised or penalised. Women spoke of serious incidents, such as being physically propositioned and behaviours bordering on gross misconduct or even sexual assault.
A major concern was ‘significant tensions’ across the trust with friction or anger being reported by two-thirds of staff between colleagues.
A serious cause for concern in the report was an absence of empathy and understanding among managers.
The consequences of bullying included suicidal thoughts and attempts, long-term sickness absence and staff leaving the ambulance service.
The trust has said it is determined to drive out bullying and harassment in the workplace, but denied the report showed a culture of bullying.
Chief executive Mr Wenman said: “We commissioned this review to learn more about these issues and we welcome its findings. The detail in (the) report will assist us in understanding how we create positive change and improved experiences for our people.
“In my view, this is the most important and significant report I’ve read in 20 years.
“We commissioned this report to learn more, and I would like to thank all staff who took the time to participate in the survey.
“Your openness and bravery in talking about your experiences will now inform the actions needed to change our culture to the benefit of all of our people and in turn, the patients we serve.”
The calls for Mr Wenman to resign mirror an incident from November 2017, when staff wrote an open letter saying the chief executive should go.
At the time, ambulance staff across the South West called for Mr Wenman to resign as they struggled to maintain a “crumbling service” affected by Government cuts.
The trade union believed he was “failing to address major issues and the toll from not doing so is having an enormous effect upon increasing numbers of staff ”.
The open letter also apologised to the public, family and friends, and the South Western Ambulance Service Trust, for “potentially putting them at risk”.
Amy Beet, SWAST’s executive director of people and culture, said: “All of the areas identified by the cultural review as hotspots for bullying and harassment have seen recent changes in senior leadership, with many of these occurring since the commencement of the survey.
This is the most important and significant report I’ve read in 20 years KEN WENMAN
“These leaders will be supported to take forward positive action to address the issues identified within each of these localities.”
Tony Fox, chairman of the trust, said: “Eradicating bullying and harassment is the trust board’s highest priority.
“There is no place for such behaviour in this trust and the board will provide oversight and support to ensure that the actions to address bullying and harassment are fully implemented and that a step change and sustained improvement is seen across the trust so that every employee feels valued and is treated with dignity and respect.”
Gary Palmer, regional organiser for the GMB, said the union was looking forward to constructive talks going forward with SWAST.
He said: “GMB do welcome this report, albeit overdue, and following a long, sometime rocky, response and relationship with SWAST and their partner union. But it’s how the report is received and actioned by SWAST going forward that GMB members and staff will judge them on.
“Our hope is that the report will not simply be a smokescreen and that we will see immediate implementation and full support from the trust of all the recommendations by Professor Duncan Lewis.”
Ken Wenman says the report will help to bring about ‘positive change’