Z is for …. Zeitgeist

 In Speak Up Month

Freedom to Speak Up captures the spirit of the times in which we live.

In 2017, global movements like #metoo and #timesup had ramifications throughout the workplace, not just in terms of people speaking up about harassment, but in feeling empowered to speak up about other issues. We began to see more and more evidence of workers making their voices heard.

This year, Black Lives Matter raised the profile of everyday racial inequalities suffered by too many people. Just as with #metoo, finding others with shared experiences encouraged people to speak up and say, “No more”.

Employee activism has also been on the rise, with workers holding their organisations to account.

When earlier this year, Amazon threatened to fire two activist employees if they continued “speaking up about Amazon’s role in the climate crisis without seeking approval,” one of the threatened employees responded: “This is not the time to shoot the messengers. This is not the time to silence those who are speaking out.” The protests led to action on making operations carbon neutral by 2040.

As the COVID-19 crisis unleashed, these words were echoed by health workers on the frontline, who were speaking up about worker safety and the lack of PPE. Chillingly, news stories reported that not only were some not being listened to, worse still, there were reports of them being victimised and actively discouraged from talking about these issues openly.

We asked Freedom to Speak Up Guardians to share their perceptions in a series of Pulse surveys. Some told us that an established culture of speaking up made things easier. Others reported they were told there wasn’t time to listen to everything workers were raising. There were anecdotal reports of communications teams advising workers not to speak to the media or use their social media to post comments.

The Freedom to Speak Up journey in healthcare was borne out of recommendations made by Sir Robert Francis in the Freedom to Speak Up Report following an investigation into failings at Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust. The role of the Freedom to Speak Up Guardian was created to give workers a safe and impartial person to speak up to.

The guardian network began in NHS trusts and has since expanded into primary care and beyond. Now there are nearly 600 guardians, with over a third of Freedom to Speak Up Guardians listed on our directory from other organisations – whether that is independent providers, national bodies or primary care. To date, they have handled over 35,000 cases since 2017.

We are also seeing other sectors embrace the Freedom to Speak Up model. The Old Vic theatre and HSBC are among those who have adopted this approach. These guardians, like our Freedom to Speak Up Guardians, provide workers with an alternative route to raise issues before they escalate into a crisis.

Leading organisations take this seriously. They are looking at ways to remove the barriers to speaking up. That means training workers in what speaking up is and communicating the routes available to them; it means training managers appropriately to listen when workers speak up to them; it means responding and following up on matters raised; and it means leaders setting the tone to foster an open and supportive environment.

At the National Guardian’s Office, we often refer to speaking up as a ‘gift’. Workers can provide vital information to support the delivery of first-class services – whether that is healthcare, or something else. This is invaluable to those curious to do better and confident enough to accept there is always room for improvement.

This Speak Up Month, we have seen many organisations sharing examples of their commitment to Freedom to Speak Up, with awareness campaigns, events and supportive messages from CEOs and board members. If your organisation hasn’t been among those, start asking yourselves, why not?

What started out as a means to address the barriers to speaking up of inaction and bullying has grown into an unstoppable social movement which has been adopted and embraced by the NHS and beyond.

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