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The effects of suspension in the NHS
- Suspension is described by managers as a neutral act, to protect the employee, as well as members of the public, whilst an investigation is carried out.
If it is neutral, then why is the experience of suspension so devastating?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘suspend’ as
‘keep in undecided or inoperative state for a time,
debar temporarily from office or function or privilege or membership’.
Exclusion, being out of control, losing one’s role within the organisation all help to explain why the experience is bound to be so detrimental. This in turn may have a serious impact on our health.
Possible effects on health:
Loss of sleep. The mind becomes very active, looking at what has happened in every possible way. It may be difficult to get off to sleep or, during the later and longer dream phases of sleep in the early hours of the morning, the thoughts may cause the person to wake up.
Going round in thought circles, or working out the next stages of defence, is exhausting.
Loss of sleep starts to have the usual accumulative effect. For example, it is more difficult to remember things or concentrate. Energy levels are reduced. It is hard to get motivated. Things require more effort to get them done. The immune system may be compromised so there is more risk of developing an infection.
Digestive system.The gut may be very sensitive to the feelings of nervousness and loss. So irritable bowel syndrome may be caused or activated with all the problems associated with it.
There may be weight loss because of reduced appetite, or weight gain due to comfort eating as a way of coping with the distress. Again these may affect the immune system and make the person more susceptible to viral and bacterial infection.
Headache. It is hard not to allow the tension of the situation to become physical. This in turn can give rise to tension headaches which further undermine the person’s ability to think and function effectively at a time when such skills are urgently required to deal with allegations and investigations.
Raised stress levels. These can have an impact on every system in the body and mind. Worrying about the situation may cause the breathing to become shallow . Hyperventilation (rapid, shallow breathing) may have the very frightening effect of palpitations and dizziness.
Mental health. Inevitably, with all these possible physical symptoms, having a sense of well-being and being able to cope, may be totally absent or greatly reduced. Depression may follow and make the whole experience even more difficult and unbearable.
Feelings that might be experienced.
Hopefully you will not feel these all at once. If you did you could not possibly survive!
Some of the feelings are contradictory too like feeling insulted at the questioning of your ability or judgment yet doubt that you will be able to do the work again.
- Anger and frustration at the injustice of it, yet being unable to do anything about it.
- Hurt to see the distress of husband/partner or other family members. They feel these things too.
- An outcast and a leper when the letter of suspension states that you may not enter any property belonging to your employer nor speak to any of the employees.
- Disbelief that this can all be happening – the sense that one is having a bad nightmare, and wondering when you will wake up.
- A sense of loss and grief because our work has been taken from us. The loss may in turn cause shock, disbelief, anger and numbness ie the feelings people experience when bereaved.
- Continual suspense and uncertainty, waiting for the next letter or next meeting, a frequent sick feeling at the thought of these things, unable to settle things, restless. Agitation and that sick feeling every time a letter or email arrives or the phone rings. Opening them is particularly stressful..
- A suspect – as in something akin to a murder enquiry with statements and audits and a search far and wide for incriminating evidence – if only to justify the act of suspension.
- Powerlessness – you may feel like an inconsequential and tiny piece of inferior machinery in a gigantic, remorseless, impersonal steamroller!
- Doubt – you may feel that you must have done something terrible for this to have happened; you doubt your ability to do your job.
- A sense of failure to have been suspended. Even though the suspension was unjust and unnecessary, the stigma of suspension may be hard to deal with.
- A sense of shame because it is such a degrading experience. The suspendee has few rights. They are banned from going to any of their employer’s property or from talking to any employees and their post may be opened and kept till their return. Making any defence is therefore extremely difficult, if not impossible.
- Insulted at the way your good work has been ignored or rubbished and your ability questioned.
- Abandoned – like a railway truck left behind on a railway siding with the train way in the distance, steaming away without you.
- Disappointment if you previously respected your managers – that they should behave in such a manner.
- Amazement and frustration at the ignorance of managers who tell you to ‘keep your chin up’ and ‘this is all good character building stuff’. They have absolutely no idea of the devastation suspension causes or worse still, they have lost their humanity to put an employee through this experience, disregarding its consequences.
- Vulnerability at the thought of returning to work. The managers have not protected their employee. What is to stop them doing the same thing again? You may develop an aversion to entering your managers’ buildings or offices.
- Loss of confidence and anxiety about your ability to do the work when you return because of the tiredness, the lapse of time, the doubt and the effect of those negative feelings.
- Relief when it is evening, weekends or bank holidays, when you are not expected to be at work and feel normal once more. Relief too after the Saturday post has been that there will be no more communications possible until Monday morning.
On the wider front
- Unease when out of the house in case someone asks you why you are not at work. What will you say?
- Embarrassment when speaking to people who do not work for the NHS and who cannot believe the action of managers against their staff. A health service?
- Uncertainty about the patients and clients? Managers do not seem to give them a thought. They will be worried about you and will think something terrible has happened. What will you say on your return? Sadly you may well be able to tell them you have been ill but it will have been caused by the action of your employer!
- Gratitude to the colleague who is your voluntary union representative and supports you at meetings etc but frustration that they are having to spend so much time trying to help when they have their own work to do.
- Sadness for colleagues who will probably have to cover and who will feel anxious and vulnerable about their own work. The fall out from suspension in the organisation is massive and the managers are either blissfully unaware or choose to ignore it.
- Despondency with the whole management system in the NHS. There appears to be no chance that the NHS will ever modernise and move away from this terrible culture of blame to a culture of openness and responsibility, allowing everyone to learn.
- Disaffection with working in the NHS because it is so anonymous and powerful and unjust whatever anyone says about it.
- Bewilderment at employment law which seems to have very little ability to protect employees from ill-advised management action.
- Indignation that managers can waste taxpayers’ money, including mine, to keep employees suspended indefinitely. They are so unaccountable. (Private organisations just cannot afford it nor do they wish to treat their employees so badly, recognising the harm suspension can do to the health of the individual.)
This long list may seem unbelievable if you have never been suspended. Before I experienced it I think I would have thought this was an exaggeration. Now I can honestly say it is not and if you have been suspended and have other feelings, please let me know so I can add them to the list.
Keeping it in perspective
It is absolutely essential to keep all this in perspective. It is a terrible experience but there really are worse things happening to others. It may make you angry that I suggest some to you but when you have had time to cool down you may appreciate what I am saying! If you don’t, then email me and tell me!
Permanent loss of health, especially inoperable cancer is a terrible blow. Living in a war zone (it may feel like that at times!) or in an area of terrible poverty must be very hard to live with. You can think of many other disasters. We have so much to be thankful for.
See the ‘Coping with suspension’ page for ideas on how to survive.
A letter from an anonymous suspended employee
We have received a letter from an anonymous suspended employee summing up their feelings in respect of the whole process.
I am still very angry about my suspension and was so pleased to find your letter on the internet. Well done, you have survived and most surprisingly so have I. I hope that maybe my story can help to stop this completely unjust practice.
I was suspended early this year, it was a complete shock. Suddenly I was not allowed to work, not allowed to speak to any of my work colleagues and not allowed to speak to my many colleague friends or even set foot on hospital grounds. I had had a very busy work life, now there was nothing – as you can imagine, I collapsed, I couldn’t eat, couldn’t get out of bed, couldn’t talk to my family, it was absolutely awful. I even thought of suicide I felt so bad.
All this because a member of staff had made allegations of harassment against me of which I was not guilty. I really feel strongly that suspension should only be used in the most extreme of instances.
Ten months later, after advice from my Union rep and because I felt I could no longer fight against the injustice of it all I have accepted a job within the main hospital. (I was a manager/nurse practitioner.) But now I wish I had carried on fighting as I feel I have lost my self respect. It’s often said that there is no smoke without fire and I now wonder what people think of me all the time. Plus I feel drained, I now hate the NHS and all it stands for, I certainly don’t feel as if I can nurse much longer and am looking for ways of leaving the nursing profession altogether. My enthusiasm and dedication have been drained.
I have had my life turned upside down and my career halted. Allegations like this assume you are guilty not innocent, plus it wastes enormous amounts of money that would be better spent on the patients. With out the support of my family and my GP I might no longer be here and continually thank them.
I feel very alone, angry and abused by the system.