Dr David Kelly’s employer, should the MoD have done more to help him deal with
the stress he was experiencing, and what measures could OH have taken to
help? By Nic Paton
Amid the clamour surrounding the conclusions of the Hutton In- quiry into
the death of Government scientist Dr David Kelly, the criticisms of his
treatment by his employer, the Ministry of Defence (MoD), have garnered
relatively little publicity.
Yet there are lessons for occupational health in how the MoD handled Kelly
in the run-up to his death. Management attitudes towards OH best practice in
supporting a stressed employee, how to manage a whistleblower and dealing with
an employee who may not naturally ask for help or assistance are all issues
that were relevant to the inquiry.
In his summary, Lord Hutton was clear that the MoD did fail Kelly. Once the
decision to give his name to the press had been taken, "the MoD was at
fault and is to be criticised for not informing Dr Kelly", he said.
"It must have been a great shock and very upsetting for him to have
been told in a brief telephone call from his line manager, Dr Wells, on the
evening of 9 July, that the press office of his own department had confirmed
his name to the press, and [this] must have given rise to a feeling that he had
been badly let down by his employer," he concluded.
"I further consider that the MoD was at fault in not having set up a
procedure whereby Dr Kelly would be informed immediately his name had been
confirmed to the press and in permitting a period of one-and-a-half hours to
elapse between the confirmation of his name to the press and information being
given to Dr Kelly that his name had been confirmed to the press," he
In mitigation, Hutton argued that the issuing of Kelly’s name to the press
was simply one factor placing him under stress, that MoD officials did try to
help him, particularly over his appearances before the Commons’ foreign affairs
committee, and that Kelly was not an easy man to help or to give advice.
Most of the issues arising out of the care of Kelly boil down to poor
management, argued Greta Thornbory, consulting editor of Occupational Health
and a former senior occupational health adviser with the Cabinet Office.
"Occupational health can be instrumental in advising managers and being
involved with managers in the development of policy. But it is all about being
proactive and preventative. Once an event such as Dr Kelly’s death has
happened, it is too late," she said.
How Kelly was treated was also, of course, an HR issue. As Hutton made
clear, the right level of support was not given and managers did not react in
the right way. It is also evident that whatever protocols were in place for
dealing with such an eventuality, they were either inadequate, not followed
through or not communicated properly.
"Even if there was support there, even if there was something in place
like an employee assistance programme, the employees may not have known it was
there or might not have wanted to use it," added Thornbory.
By all accounts, Kelly was an intensely private, self-sufficient man. When
an employee is going through a traumatic or stressful incident, however much
help there may be on tap, there still has to be an element of willingness on
the part of the employee to accept help.
Stress consultant Carole Spiers said: "The OH professional can give
encouragement to seek support but only once the person has made contact. But it
also is a case of OH having a higher profile, so that managers and employees
know to whom they can turn."
Even though Kelly was a whistleblower who had unauthorised meetings with
journalists and so was also under a disciplinary cloud, the MoD still had a
duty of care. As such, his managers needed to handle the situation carefully
and – even if there were no outward signs that he was not coping – with
consideration for his mental state.
No doubt the MoD will learn lessons, but Thornbory said that too often the
talk is still about how much initiatives are going to cost, rather than what is
the cost going to be if we don’t do it. "It is about management and HR.
Too many employers gamble on the fact their employees will be all right,"
Key questions for OH
– Had there been a risk assessment of the workplace and employee
roles in relation to the mental health risks?
– Was the employee known to OH, and if so, had their progress
– What were the relevant sources of support (employee
assistance line, health information, intranet, etc)?
– Were these easily accessible, how were they marketed, and how
– What was the level of backing of well-being issues from key
– Was there a pressure management policy in place, was its
effectiveness reviewed regularly, was there any pressure management education
in place for employees and managers?
– Was private healthcare insurance in place for easy and quick
– What workplace adjustments had been made to support the
– What sort of relationship was there between OH, HR and line
managers to ensure effective case management?
– Did line managers and colleagues feel confident they could
recognise signs/symptoms of stress, did they know of sources of support
available to them?
– Were managers’ interpersonal skills assessed as part of their