St John Ambulance volunteers say bullying complaints were 'swept under the rug'

The charity says it is 'deeply saddened' to hear the accounts from people who have approached Third Sector

(Photograph: Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images)
(Photograph: Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images)

Current and former volunteers for St John Ambulance have described a “cult-like” atmosphere at the first aid charity, where complaints about bullying were “swept under the rug”.

Several sources allege their mental and physical health was “weaponised” against them and used to undermine them after they made complaints about the behaviour of senior volunteers at the organisation.

The charity said it was "deeply saddened" to hear the accounts and that it remained committed to listening carefully to feedback. 

Third Sector published an initial story about allegations of bullying among paid staff at SJA in December.

Since then, 11 people have come forward with additional allegations. Of these, five are volunteers, some of whom have now left the organisation, although others are still involved.

Some of the concerns raised with Third Sector stretch back as far as 2014, but others are recent and ongoing.

Several sources described a “culture of bullying” among volunteers and of “sweeping complaints under the rug”. One source described the charity’s response to their complaint as “psychologically abusive” and “aggressive and defensive”.

One source said: “It has become more and more obvious that the organisation has a very well-developed mechanism for deflecting complaints” and that they felt SJA “made moves to isolate me” rather than deal with their complaint.

Several sources described a “cult-like” atmosphere among senior volunteers, with a defined in-crowd who were treated as being immune to criticism.

One source said: “Complaints I raised were disregarded because of the popularity and rank of the person I complained about.”

Another told Third Sector: “There are people who are so deep in it that they feel that questioning anyone is to question the infallibility of the whole organisation – the attitude is: ‘You shouldn’t be questioning them, everything we do is perfect.’”

Several sources describe feeling that their mental and/or physical health was “weaponised” or “politicised” during the complaints process.

One source said: “There’s a culture of undermining people who make complaints and using their medical history against them – if you’ve got any kind of medical or mental health issues in your background, that will be used to discredit you.”

Another source, who said they were placed in a welfare process by the charity over a physical injury, described the way the process was handled as “very intrusive and destructive”.

They said they were instructed not to see their counsellor during the period they were being assessed to return to their volunteer role, and told that speaking to a counsellor would “contaminate the process”.

The source said: “I was routinely told I should be taking antidepressants during welfare meetings by a senior volunteer who was not my counsellor or my GP.

“I was later told that I ‘had refused to take medication prescribed by my doctor’ and this was used as a reason that I was not considered ready to return to my role. That was not the case.”

They said action plans that were created as part of the welfare process were not adhered to.

The source added that most of the officers they raised issues about were still involved with the charity “in the same if not more senior posts, so the implication that the organisation has turned over a new leaf is risible”.

Another source described having their medical details shared inappropriately between volunteers and staff.

One source complained of mostly male senior volunteers and managers and said they felt there were issues of gender bias, and two sources complained of experiencing comments and behaviour they felt was discriminatory against people with physical and mental health difficulties – including during the complaints-handling process.

Another source said they experienced disability discrimination after raising a complaint, and that the organisation neglected medical evidence that they were fit to practice, instead basing its assessment on the opinion of a manager.

Another described having their medical details shared inappropriately between senior volunteers and staff.

A spokeswoman for SJA said: “We are deeply saddened to hear the voices of former St John members whose experiences were clearly not what we would want.

“The vast majority of St John people are proud of being part of this charity and do not recognise these challenges as pervasive.

“We are committed to listening carefully to feedback and we would welcome the opportunity to continue to talk openly about our culture.

“We remain committed to the investments and changes we have made building a culture of inclusion, transparency and fairness, and we believe that this conversation will inform that ongoing work.”

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