Whistleblowing is dangerous to your health

The Russell Crowe movie, The Insider, was an Academy Award-nominated film based on the true story of a corporate Big Tobacco whistleblower. Until he went public, Dr. Jeffrey Wigand had been Brown & Williamson’s $300,000-a-year research director, described by the Wall Street Journal as “the highest-ranking defector in the history of the tobacco industry”.

Dr. Wigand decided to go public by delivering a damning courtroom deposition against his employer – a move that eventually led to the tobacco industry’s $246 billion litigation settlement in 1998 to help pay for smoking-related health care bills in the U.S.

But it turns out that a conscientious employee like Dr. Wigand who blows the whistle on dangerous or illegal acts faces a significant personal health risk, too, according to research published in the BMJBritish Medical Journal.

An Australian study, called “Whistleblowing: A Health Issue“, examined the responses of organizations to whistleblowing employees, as well as the effect on individual whistleblowers themselves.

Researchers interviewed 25 men and 10 women from various occupations who had exposed corruption or danger to the public, ranging from a few months to over 20 years before the interviews were done.

The results were uniformly negative for the whistleblowers, according to the study:

  • All subjects in this sample had suffered adverse consequences.
  • For 29 of the whistleblowers, victimization had started immediately after their first internal complaint.
  • Only 17 approached the media.
  • Victimization at work was extensive: dismissal (eight subjects), demotion (10), and resignation or early retirement because of ill health related to victimization (10) were common.
  • Only 10 still had a full-time job at the time of the study.
  • Long term relationships broke up in seven cases.
  • 60 of the 77 children of the subjects were adversely affected.
  • Twenty nine subjects reported a mean of 5.3 stress related symptoms initially, with a mean of 3.6 still present.
  • Fifteen were prescribed long-term treatment with drugs which they had not been prescribed before.
  • Seventeen had considered suicide.
  • Income had been reduced by three-quarters or more for 14 subjects.
  • Total financial loss was estimated in hundreds of thousands of dollars in 17.
  • Whistleblowers received little or no help from statutory authorities, and only a modest amount from workmates.
  • In most cases, the corruption and malpractice continued unchanged.

But far more troubling was the study author’s conclusion:

“Although whistleblowing is important in protecting society, the typical organisational response causes severe and long lasting health,  financial and personal problems for whistleblowers and their families.”

Like those interviewed in the Australian study, Dr. Jeffrey Wigand paid a big price for going public with what he knew about his employer.

Amid lawsuits, countersuits, and an exhaustive smear campaign orchestrated by the company, Dr. Wigand was fired and lost his family, his privacy, and his reputation. His wife divorced him, and their two daughters went to live with her. Eventually, he left his home in Kentucky and moved to South Carolina, hoping to start over. Dr. Wigand later told Fast Company.

“I had to heal. I had never expected death threats against me and my family. I never expected to find a bullet in my mailbox. I never expected a 500-page dossier that was part of a company campaign to ruin me.”

Unable to find work in his field, he took a job teaching high school science at one tenth of his former B&W salary.

Catastrophic career damage is not uncommon among whistleblowers. In fact, New Zealand sociologist Dr. Nick Perry calls this “occupational suicide”. In his March 1998 report calleIndecent Exposures: Theorizing Whistleblowing published in the journal, Organization Studies, he describes an employee’s act of whistleblowing as:

“… available for interpretation as either heroic or pathological.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Wigand has received numerous awards and public recognition for his action in revealing illegal tobacco company research and marketing practices. He continues his efforts to reduce teen tobacco use.  He also told Fast Company interviewers that he hates being called a whistleblower.

“The word ‘whistleblower’ suggests that you’re a tattletale or that you’re somehow disloyal. But I wasn’t disloyal in the least bit. People were dying. I was loyal to a higher order of ethical responsibility.”

He simply told the truth, he says, about what he saw and experienced as the head of B&W research and development.

Read about the whistleblowing study from the BMJ. Or learn more about Dr. Wigand’s personal story.

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4 thoughts on “Whistleblowing is dangerous to your health

  1. Fascinating. And disturbing. I guess when the pain of NOT speaking up becomes worse than the pain of the inevitable consequences, people will come forward to talk. But it’s a terrible health price to pay. The really disturbing thing of this study is that most companies go right back to doing what they were doing in the first place.

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    • You are damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. No wonder so few of us are brave enough to step up even when we know something is not right.

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  2. I like Wigand’s simple explanation: “I just told the truth.” A rare quality in this self-indulgent, pass-the-buck, C-Y-A corporate work ethic.

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