The canary down the mine: what whistleblowers' health tells us about their environment

Jean Lennane

Paper given at Department of Criminology, Melbourne University, conference: "Whistleblowers: protecting the nation's conscience?" November 17, 1995.

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The typical whistleblower's health is very poor. In a survey I did in 1993, reported in the British Medical Journal (1), 29 of the 35 subjects had an average of 3.6 symptoms at the time of the survey. Though high, this was less than the average of 5.3 at the time they blew the whistle. The most common were difficulty sleeping, anxiety, panic attacks, depression, and feelings of guilt and unworthiness. They also suffered from nervous diarrhoea, trouble breathing, stomach problems, loss of appetite, loss of weight, high blood pressure, palpitations, hair loss, grinding teeth, nightmares, headaches, tiredness, weeping, tremor, urinary frequency, 'stress', and 'loss of trust'. Fifteen subjects (i.e. over half of those with symptoms) were now on medication they had not been on before blowing the whistle - for depression, stomach ulcers, and high blood pressure.

The reason for this poor state of health is clear. They had suffered intense victimization at work, being made redundant, demoted, dismissed, or pressured to resign; their position was abolished, or they were transferred. While still in the workplace they were isolated, physically and personally; were given impossible tasks to perform, menial work, or no work at all; were subjected to constant scrutiny and verbal abuse, forced to see psychiatrists, threatened with defamation actions and disciplinary actions; were constantly criticised, fined, subjected to internal inquiries, adverse reports; and received death and other threats. The most common outcome was to resign because of ill health caused by the victimization. The treatment they receive appears to be standard, and is described in more detail, for example, by Bill de Maria in his large survey of Queensland whistleblowers. (2)

As a result of what happened they also suffered severe financial loss. Only eight of the 35 subjects had not suffered any loss of income; in twelve cases their income was reduced by over 75%. They faced large medical, other, and particularly legal costs, and in over half the cases their estimated total financial loss was in hundreds of thousands of dollars.

However, from these initial studies of whistleblowers, we have started to move on, as seems to be usual in studies of victims. When domestic violence, for example, started to become an issue, the focus was on the battered wives. It was only after their injuries and psyche had been extensively studied that the focus shifted, years later, to the real problem - the battering husbands. Similarly in studies of school bullying, the victims, and what made them victims, was the focus at first. Studies have now moved on to look at the bullies themselves. The 'perpetrator' in whistleblowing cases however is not one person, but many, and in our studies we have primarily to look at the organization of which they are part.

It has become clear that we can, even without doing further formal studies of the organization, learn a great deal about it from an examination of the whistleblower's health and the organization's reactions to it. This brings us to the canary, used for detecting toxic or explosive gases in coal-mines, before there was a better way to do it. More sensitive to such gases than humans, they would collapse long before the miners were affected, and a collapsed canary was therefore a signal to the miners to get out immediately, and to management to look at the problem and clean up the mine. If we think of the victimized whistleblower as a poisoned canary - and clearly there are strong parallels here - the typical reaction of management is interesting and instructive. They don't say 'we've got a problem here, let's fix it before we have a disaster', but start bad-mouthing the canary. It has a personality disorder, they say, or is faking it to get compo; was sick before it went down the mine; or - more simply - is a no-good ratbag troublemaker.

Just as the victimization that causes the canary to collapse is standard from one organization, state, or even country to another, so is management's explanation for the canary's state of health. And remembering what the canary's state really means to the mine and those in it, the response is not at all what we would expect from a manager who cared about the miners, or even about the reputation and hence the profits of the company. But the reaction to the canary is representative of the organization's response as a whole. Typically the response is orchestrated and powerful - 'crushing' is the word most victims use to describe it. It usually involves the whistleblower's union or other potential supports, and it rewards the deviant(s) while penalizing the whistleblower. The pattern seen now in hundreds of cases shows this classical response means the activity the whistle was blown on is endemic and tacitly accepted within the organization.

It is also clear that the strength of the response can tell us the size of the problem. Many, if not most, people when they first blow the whistle are aware only of corruption at their level in the organization, and their initial complaints may be about relatively minor matters. They then discover, over months or years of victimization, that corruption and the protection of those involved in it extends further up the line, to the top or beyond, and is far greater in extent and seriousness than they had ever suspected when they first became aware something was wrong.

A classic example of corruption being seen eventually to include the whole organization is the Coles-Myer case, which has been slowly unfolding over the past few years. The first sign was a whistleblower in the fruit and vegetable supply area being shot dead in a mafia-style killing. A year or so later, several middle managers were prosecuted for embezzlement. A year or so after that, a top manager was charged with corruption, having - among other things - allegedly spent a remarkable number of millions of dollars on renovating his house. At the time it seemed a little odd that only one manager was involved, but then it became clear he was the head of the weaker party in a merger, hence his fall could have been part of a power play. Last year, a recently-imported high-flyer blew the whistle on the board chairman's allegedly improper diversion of $18 million in company funds to a company much closer to home. The company is still going from crisis to crisis, unstable, demoralized, and losing money.

Hundreds of cases have shown us that what was happening at Coles-Myer is absolutely standard. It is unusual only in having been so completely and publicly exposed. When the same thing happens in a government department, parts or sometimes all of it can be kept concealed, often for ever. What we now know is that we don't need to see the whole chain in order to know top management is corrupt. A crushing reaction to a whistleblower at a low level in an organization - and one could hardly get more crushing than a mafia-style hit - means the whole organization is involved in corruption, and not minor expense-fiddling, but multi-million-dollar rorts. If there is political support for the situation, that means the corruption includes Government. It is time we stopped wasting time examining the canary when it keels over, and look immediately at who is bad-mouthing the bird.

There is another inference that can be drawn in the 1990's, from the numbers and type of whistleblowers involved. Whistleblowing has been described as a form of principled organizational dissent, with obvious parallels to other types of dissent, such as heresy and political dissent. Dissent and dissenters have always been with us, and can be regarded as an essential part of the stabilizing system of any society. Some of the hundreds of whistleblowers known to Whistleblowers Australia are dissenters by nature. They have been involved in other dissent apart from whistleblowing, and may have blown the whistle more than once. In a society where corruption isn't rife, and dissent is part of its normal homeostasis, the whistleblower who is a natural dissident will be the norm. However, among the hundreds of whistleblowers known to Whistleblowers Australia, we find the great majority are now what can be called natural conformists. That is, they are people who do not normally question authority. They support and believe in the system. They are most reluctant to rock the boat, but have been so shocked by what they have seen they felt they had no choice but to speak out. Whistleblowing is usually even more tragic for them than for the natural dissenter, since the corrupt and unexpected response of their organization, and of 'protection' agencies, is a terrible betrayal of their entire belief system. Their presence in such large numbers is an indication of the seriousness and pervasiveness of corruption in our society now.

Other indicators of widespread involvement of the bureaucratic system are the standard techniques used to cover up. Word-processor 'stuff-off' letters are the rule, as is a 3 to 6-month delay in replying. Threats of defamation suits are used to keep impecunious whistleblowers quiet, while rich and powerful organizations defame them with impunity - in quiet chats and secret memos, negative work and medical reports, confidential Board and Cabinet minutes, and in Parliament. The legal system's delays are used to the full, so the issues cannot be publicly discussed for years because they are 'sub judice', then can't be exposed because they are no longer news. There are phony 'inquiries', by people appointed by the employer, and dependent on them for further employment. Sometimes the 'wrong' person is appointed, and does a proper job regardless, but more often they do what they are paid to do. [There was a remarkable inquiry by combined law enforcement agencies recently that found no evidence of an organized mafia in Australia! The small print did say they meant that organized crime here, like our society, is multi-cultural rather than monolithic, but the headlines - 'No mafia in Australia' - were grossly misleading, and could hardly have been unintentional.]

There are many bricks that help make up the impenetrable wall of corruption confronting the whistleblower. The legal system is a very large component, and the lack of whistleblowers from the legal profession despite overwhelming evidence from other sources of widespread corruption within it is a sad indictment of lawyers' professional ethics - or lack of them. A recent example illustrates some of the problems. A major Sydney law firm was asked to take on a case by a branch of the Lebanese mafia - apparently they had decided to use the law rather than settling the dispute by shooting each other. The firm had some scruples about acting in such a case - not, alas, because it so obviously involved organized crime, but because they were afraid they might not get paid. These scruples were entirely relieved when the wife of one of the mafioso arrived in the office with a suitcase containing the down payment - $40,000 in cash. The firm won the case, and celebrated the win with a dinner for the entire staff in one of Sydney's most expensive restaurants.

With such attitudes in a major law firm, it is not surprising to find anecdotes from whistleblowers indicating problems at every level of the legal system. As with any system it may be hard to tell where incompetence and ignorance end and corruption begins, but in many cases there is no doubt. The same applies to all our law enforcement agencies - it is not only the New South Wales police who have a problem. Government departments have gone through a series of changes over the last ten to fifteen years that have seen public servants squeezed out if they hold any old-fashioned ideas about being there to serve the public. Economic rationalism has taken over, and the only advice politicians are being given is what they want to hear. The media remains the only source of help for most whistleblowers, but since it has been hit by economic rationalism and downsizing to a point where journalists don't have time to investigate, and is controlled by fewer and fewer people, it is not nearly as useful as it could be. The party political system remains a significant problem, as the party's response to an allegation against a member is to close ranks and cover up to protect the party, rather than clean it up to protect the public.

Attitudes are starting to change. We have a long way to go, but many interesting avenues for the study of organizations more directly in the future.


1. Lennane K.J. "Whistleblowing": a health issue. British Medical Journal, 1993. 307: 667-670

2. De Maria W. Open spaces, secret places: workplace violence towards whistleblowers. In: Bullying: from backyard to boardroom. Ed. Paul McCarthy, Michael Sheehan, William Wilkie. Millenium Books, Sydney, 1996.