July 13, 2008

The canary down the mine: what whistleblowers' health tells us about their environment

The typical whistleblower's health is very poor. In a survey I did in 1993, reported in the British Medical Journal (1), 29 of the 35 subjects had an average of 3.6 symptoms at the time of the survey. Though high, this was less than the average of 5.3 at the time they blew the whistle. The most common were difficulty sleeping, anxiety, panic attacks, depression, and feelings of guilt and unworthiness. They also suffered from nervous diarrhoea, trouble breathing, stomach problems, loss of appetite, loss of weight, high blood pressure, palpitations, hair loss, grinding teeth, nightmares, headaches, tiredness, weeping, tremor, urinary frequency, 'stress', and 'loss of trust'. Fifteen subjects (i.e. over half of those with symptoms) were now on medication they had not been on before blowing the whistle - for depression, stomach ulcers, and high blood pressure.

The reason for this poor state of health is clear. They had suffered intense victimization at work, being made redundant, demoted, dismissed, or pressured to resign; their position was abolished, or they were transferred. While still in the workplace they were isolated, physically and personally; were given impossible tasks to perform, menial work, or no work at all; were subjected to constant scrutiny and verbal abuse, forced to see psychiatrists, threatened with defamation actions and disciplinary actions; were constantly criticised, fined, subjected to internal inquiries, adverse reports; and received death and other threats. The most common outcome was to resign because of ill health caused by the victimization. The treatment they receive appears to be standard, and is described in more detail, for example, by Bill de Maria in his large survey of Queensland whistleblowers. (2)

As a result of what happened they also suffered severe financial loss. Only eight of the 35 subjects had not suffered any loss of income; in twelve cases their income was reduced by over 75%. They faced large medical, other, and particularly legal costs, and in over half the cases their estimated total financial loss was in hundreds of thousands of dollars...

It has become clear that we can, even without doing further formal studies of the organization, learn a great deal about it from an examination of the whistleblower's health and the organization's reactions to it. This brings us to the canary, used for detecting toxic or explosive gases in coal-mines, before there was a better way to do it. More sensitive to such gases than humans, they would collapse long before the miners were affected, and a collapsed canary was therefore a signal to the miners to get out immediately, and to management to look at the problem and clean up the mine. If we think of the victimized whistleblower as a poisoned canary - and clearly there are strong parallels here - the typical reaction of management is interesting and instructive. They don't say 'we've got a problem here, let's fix it before we have a disaster', but start bad-mouthing the canary. It has a personality disorder, they say, or is faking it to get compo; was sick before it went down the mine; or - more simply - is a no-good ratbag troublemaker.

Just as the victimization that causes the canary to collapse is standard from one organization, state, or even country to another, so is management's explanation for the canary's state of health. And remembering what the canary's state really means to the mine and those in it, the response is not at all what we would expect from a manager who cared about the miners, or even about the reputation and hence the profits of the company. But the reaction to the canary is representative of the organization's response as a whole. Typically the response is orchestrated and powerful - 'crushing' is the word most victims use to describe it. It usually involves the whistleblower's union or other potential supports, and it rewards the deviant(s) while penalizing the whistleblower. The pattern seen now in hundreds of cases shows this classical response means the activity the whistle was blown on is endemic and tacitly accepted within the organization...

Other indicators of widespread involvement of the bureaucratic system are the standard techniques used to cover up. Word-processor 'stuff-off' letters are the rule, as is a 3 to 6-month delay in replying. Threats of defamation suits are used to keep impecunious whistleblowers quiet, while rich and powerful organizations defame them with impunity - in quiet chats and secret memos, negative work and medical reports, confidential Board and Cabinet minutes, and in Parliament. The legal system's delays are used to the full, so the issues cannot be publicly discussed for years because they are 'sub judice', then can't be exposed because they are no longer news. There are phony 'inquiries', by people appointed by the employer, and dependent on them for further employment. Sometimes the 'wrong' person is appointed, and does a proper job regardless, but more often they do what they are paid to do...

From: http://www.uow.edu.au/arts/sts/bmartin/dissent/documents/Lennane_canary.html

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great post. Whistleblowing destoys all of you in one way or another. It's the price you pay for what you did.

One unexpected side effect after I blew the whistle is that I no longer have the ability to ignore anything- from what I may see or hear, or what I might think or feel. That can't be healthy either.

Good luck and I wish you well.