The role of psychological support in a whistleblowing incident. | Fieldfisher
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The role of psychological support in a whistleblowing incident

Nick Thorpe


United Kingdom

With the right skilled approach, a whistleblowing incident can be transformed from an organisational disaster to an experience that results in learning and growth. With thanks to Dr Mike Drayton, in this Insight we look at the role of psychological support in a whistleblowing incident. 

Whistleblowing incidents are psychologically and emotionally stressful for all involved.  It can have a catastrophic impact on many people: the whistleblower, the people who have been accused of wrongdoing, those involved in the incident, and more often than not, the organisation as a whole. 

If this emotional fallout is not handled well, it can have serious consequences. For example, 

  • an escalation of conflict (between the whistleblower and organisation or between the organisation and those accused of wrongdoing); 
  • a decline in organisational performance, because people become distracted and upset by the conflict;
  • business disruption
  • adverse publicity and reputational damage;
  • sickness absence due to stress resulting in poor mental health; and
  • the potential for legal claims.

Independent and confidential support can help to contain employee anxiety and de-escalate the tension, conflict and blaming that always accompanies a whistleblowing incident. The psychological support calms down emotions that are running high. This facilitates constructive and creative dialogue between all involved in the whistleblowing incident. This approach is crucial in preventing an escalation of conflict.

Psychological help and support will also minimise the risk of employees involved in the incident developing mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and adjustment disorders. It helps to calm people down, so that they can think clearly and logically about a complex and challenging situation.

Psychological support will also help to  contain potentially damaging information within the organisation as well as minimising gossip within the organisation. When affected employees have someone to talk to they are far less likely to leak information to the media or to others outside the organisation. 

When the whistleblowing investigation has concluded, it is crucial that the organisation is able to implement the findings of the report and learn the lessons to minimise the risk of a future occurrence. This task is difficult because the individuals involved in the incident are often those required to process the lessons of that incident. At the conclusion of the incident emotions are usually still running high. Some employees feel relieved, others angry and others pleased. This highly charged atmosphere makes effective debriefing difficult. A debrief process that is expertly managed by a psychologist can defuse these emotions and create an atmosphere where leaders can do their best thinking. 

Whistleblowing incidents can be damaging to organisations. This holistic legal and psychological intervention will keep this damage to a minimum.

Dr Mike Drayton is an executive coach and organisational consultant, with professional training as a clinical psychologist.  He has a degree in Social Psychology and a doctorate in Clinical Psychology, and worked for many years in the NHS, latterly as a Consultant Clinical Psychologist.  Mike is a fellow of the Cabinet Office Emergency Planning College and a leadership coach on the Executive MBA programme at the Said Business School, University of Oxford.  He write extensively on how businesses can improve performance, wellbeing and engagement.  He is the author of a number of books, including "Anti-burnout: How to create a psychologically healthy and high-performance organisation", published by Routledge.

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