Some staff felt suicidal working at 'toxic' Lincolnshire charity LIVES

Lives responder
The LIVES charity was founded 50 years ago and responds to medical emergencies in Lincolnshire [BBC]

Three people said they considered suicide while working for a medical charity, which others have described as being a "toxic environment".

Twenty-six staff and volunteers, both former and current, have spoken to the BBC, claiming there is a culture of bullying and belittling staff at LIVES.

Founded 50 years ago in Lincolnshire, the charity sends emergency responders to medical incidents across the county.

Trustees said the allegations were "completely without foundation" and they were "satisfied the charity is well run and robustly managed".

Most of the staff who approached the BBC wanted to remain anonymous.

Nine independently described the workplace culture at LIVES as "toxic". Twelve said working there caused their mental health to deteriorate and three said they had considered taking their own lives.

Former employee Andy Bateman worked as the finance officer at the Horncastle-based charity from 2018 to 2020.

He described it as "probably the most caustic place I ever worked".

Mr Bateman said he was shouted at and belittled by management. He made an official complaint of bullying, which was rejected by the charity.

Now retired after a 48-year career in the private and public sector, Mr Bateman said: "I have never known anywhere with such a high staff turnover or bad morale. I worked in some reasonably high-risk businesses, but nothing was like there.

"There were more investigations and employment clashes than I think I encountered at any other time in my career."

LIVES said it rejects Mr Bateman's claims.

Roof of LIVES car
According to the charity's annual reports, the number of volunteer responders has fallen from 762 in 2018 to 241 in 2023 [BBC]

Eleven of the people we have spoken to believe they, or their colleagues, were targeted after whistleblowing about patient safety, or raising concerns about management decisions.

One of them told the BBC: "It's the most toxic environment I ever worked in. I've seen grown men reduced to tears."

Another said: "I served in Iraq and Afghanistan, but nothing compares to what I went through in that organisation."

One, who was subjected to a disciplinary investigation after whistleblowing is taking the charity to an employment tribunal on claims of unfair and constructive dismissal.

The charity said as the case was ongoing, it would be inappropriate to comment.

'Dark thoughts'

Another former employee said their "difficulties began" after they raised concerns about a contractual matter.

LIVES later accused them of breaching regulations and reported them to authorities, including the police, who took no further action.

The former employee said the stress of the 14-month investigation drove them to consider suicide.

"The effect on my mental health from that whole process was just awful. My reputation was damaged, my income was damaged. There were times when I had some very dark thoughts."

LIVES rejects the claim staff who raise concerns are singled out. It said it only refers employees to a regulatory body "where it has reasonable grounds and only after following due process".

It said in many cases, employees' mental health issues "predated their employment with LIVES" and "in any cases brought to our attention we have offered the appropriate support".

It said disciplinary proceedings were "carried out by independent professional consultants" and only "when it is proper to do so and after other options have been exhausted".

LIVES said it had "no records of a single incident of a 'whistleblowing' disclosure in the last eight years", nor "a single case of a disciplinary outcome which has been successfully challenged".

A report published in January by the healthcare regulator the Care Quality Commission (CQC) said some LIVES staff told inspectors about allegations of "bullying and shouting at staff in public areas from senior leaders".

Staff told inspectors they had "felt unable to report [the incidents] formally" and were unable to raise concerns with managers because they "feared the consequences".

The charity denies the allegations and said an "action plan" had been created since the report, with many issues "immediately addressed".

It said complaints about the CEO were "small in number and all handled by an independent external HR specialist company according to a very robust and thorough set of policies".

Andy Bateman
Former employee Andy Bateman described LIVES as "probably the most caustic place I ever worked" [BBC]

LIVES was set up by two Lincolnshire doctors in the 1970s, to get emergency responders to patients in rural and remote areas, until an ambulance can reach the scene.

But the number of volunteers has dropped, as well as the number of medical emergencies the charity's Community Emergency Medicine Service (CEMS) attends.

According to the charity's annual reports, the number of volunteer responders has fallen from 762 in 2018 to 241 in 2023.

The number of CEMS call-outs has dropped from 202 in January 2022 to 69 in January 2024, a Freedom of Information request to East Midlands Ambulance Service (EMAS) revealed.

Former and current staff said they believed the declines were, in part, down to high levels of staff sickness, disciplinary suspensions and resignations. The CQC said its inspectors found "high turnover and sickness rates" among LIVES' staff and 15 had left the charity in a year.

LIVES said there were multiple reasons for the reduction in both volunteer and response numbers. These included "staffing issues", a migration of the volunteers' database which removed "outdated information" and a new EMAS triage system.

EMAS said there was "no evidence" the system was "having a negative impact".

In 2022/23, LIVES received £502,834 in donations and legacies. It was also paid £2.41m by the NHS to provide emergency response services, including staffing three CEMS vehicles with paramedics, doctors and advanced clinical practitioners seven days a week.

The BBC has been told the vehicles have not been fully staffed at any point in the past six months. LIVES said that claim "does not match" its records.

NHS Lincolnshire Integrated Care Board, which funds CEMS, said it was "aware of some staffing capacity constraints" and was "working with LIVES to address this".

The Charity Commission, which regulates all charities in England, said it was "aware of potential concerns" at LIVES and was "assessing information to inform our next steps".

The BBC has been told some former staff were offered financial settlements and asked to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), or so-called gagging clauses, when they left the charity.

LIVES' trustees said settlement agreements "are a part of everyday life in business, for charities and non-charities alike" and it used NDAs "rarely, properly, lawfully".

LIVES paramedic car
Trustees said the allegations were "completely without foundation" and they were "satisfied the charity is well run and robustly managed" [BBC]

Since January, an online petition calling for the charity's CEO to resign has been supported by 468 people, including former finance officer Andy Bateman.

He said he was willing to speak out because he had "very little to lose" after his formal complaint of bullying was rejected by the charity.

"I've been subjected to bullying. I don't like people being bullied, and if others won't speak up, somebody's got to lead the charge or stand and man the parapet. I don't want LIVES to fail," he said.

'Valuable work'

Addressing all the allegations, the charity's trustees said LIVES "does not recognise the majority of concerns raised. Most we refute unequivocally."

"In the few instances where we have been able to identify the incident referred to, the claims made present a warped or exaggerated version of events," they said.

They added it was "impossible" to provide "contrary evidence" to the allegations, "because the only way to do so would involve breaching the sanctity of personnel records and privacy issues".

They said: "We very much regret that a small number of former employees are pursuing what appears to be a vendetta against LIVES.

"Responding to such allegations detracts from our valuable work. The charity exists solely to help those in the community most in need and has carried out that mission successfully for more than 50 years."

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