Bernie Rochford: I believe once we have a better understanding of three F’s undermining speaking up – Fear, Futility and Facts, we may then be in a better position to understand the fourth ‘F’ - Freedom.Sometimes we’re so busy moving forward we overlook how far we’ve come. I’m reminded of this as I prepare to leave my Freedom to Speak Up Guardian role at Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust to join Essex Partnership University Foundation Trust as theirs. My backstory to becoming a Guardian was borne from a life-changing poor experience of speaking up. It’s one of those mixed blessings – pure hell at the time but which later leads to a new vista of insights, learnings and change in lifepath.  

In 2016, I was invited to join the Advisory Group to the National Guardians Office and in January 2018 I joined Mersey Care. Over time, I’ve been involved in various projects and see the cumulative effect small tweaks and changes here and there are having on creating a more positive speaking up culture; and conversely other areas where it doesn’t and we need to ask why. 

On the surface Freedom to Speak Up seems straightforwardly simple but complexity lies in the details and facts. There can be many facts and even more perspectives as well as a ‘mosaic of truths’, therefore what Freedom to Speak Up means and to whom may differ. Is it a Right? Or more goodwill? This has greater significance depending on where power rests at the time. Its relative – those holding seats of power may not be able to speak up freely either or put challenge into the system without push back, threat or fear of detriment too. This can’t be right. 

Detriment or fear of detriment are key areas I think we need to explore and focus on more. Not doing so, condones it and compounds futility in speaking up. Discussions with Guardians in the North and Southwest regions also support the view we may need to consider who has the responsibility, accountability, influence and control to truly effect change. All is not what it first appears. Not least, how we report data can skew perception and scale of detriment and the priority it should be given.  

I believe once we have a better understanding of three F’s undermining speaking up – Fear, Futility and Facts, we may then be in a better position to understand the fourth ‘F’ – Freedom. For Freedom comes with responsibility and with that comes choice. Do we choose to harm, hurt or help support colleagues speaking up? Do we choose to assert the rights, self interests, agendas, perceptions and beliefs of sole individuals who shout the loudest? Or do we choose to strengthen our collective diversity? 

Everything is interconnected and the parts effect the whole. So, what whole are we creating?  

We now seem to be in an uncomfortable space of breaking free of the old ways of working whilst not yet establishing the new workforce culture we want and need. It takes time and commitment to ‘till the field’. As we turnover well-trodden ground, things may surface that have been lost or overlooked for some time. This can ignite tension, conflict and disagreement. Guardians need to remain impartial and maintain balance especially when sides become polarised. Impartial, not in any watery, wishy washy hybrid melting pot way, but rather aid the process of moving towards safer, kinder ways of working. Afterall, our caseloads comprise human-made problems not natural disasters.  

I believe we’ll benefit from taking a more humane system approach i.e., Fair Play (rather than foul play), Human Factors, Restorative, Just & learning and other proactive methodologies. Add to this a focus on accountability and ‘learning not blaming’ and we are more likely to develop wisdom and compassion. Compassion through learning from experience – and not as a tick-box, add-on as sometimes portrayed.  

Whilst my reflections may sound very philosophical, I think we do need to pause and reflect every so often so we can take stock of where we are at and where we are heading, to make it practical, keep it real and adjust accordingly.  

Before I move to the Essex Partnership, I’d like to thank all the Freedom to Speak Up Guardians, buddies and colleagues who have helped me and others along the way. And to Mersey Care, the National Guardians Office, NHS England and Leadership Academy for all your support – I appreciate it. Sometimes the Guardian role can feel quite isolatory but I’ve found there is ‘isolated unity’ through buddying up, the networks and sharing learnings.