Understanding and Preventing the Psychosocial Impacts of Whistleblowing, Part 1

The typical whistleblower has their role thrust upon them. They are frequently employees who discover their employer is engaged in illegal or illicit conduct and feel compelled to disclose it—often to protect innocent third parties such as patients, children, and service members, as well as to safeguard taxpayer dollars.

Research shows that whistleblowing can have a tremendous impact on the whistleblower’s quality of life, especially when they experience workplace retaliation. In December 2022, I co-authored, The Psychosocial Impacts of Whistleblower Retaliation: Shattering Employee Resilience and the Workplace Promise.[1] The book looks at whistleblower retaliation through application of the Whistleblower Retaliation Checklist (WRC)©. The WRC was developed to help identify the toxic tactics of retaliation, correlate them to the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety or depression[2], and demonstrate the nexus back to the hostile work environment.

Whistleblowing can be an isolating and stressful endeavor, particularly when whistleblowers are subjected to retaliation. Whistleblowers may feel overwhelmed, depressed, and alone. Whistleblowers, like combat veterans, need to learn how to recognize their symptoms and develop positive coping mechanisms to overcome the stress that they are experiencing. There are several steps that I believe can help a whistleblower heal.

1. Own your narrative. Your story is yours. Be clear in what you want to say about your disclosure, any retaliation, and the outcome you desire. No one can make you feel bad, sad, or any other emotion without your permission.

2. Have a strategy. Use a SMART goals approach by being Specific in what you want and need. Make sure your personal goals around blowing the whistle are Measurable, Achievable, and Realistic. This means knowing what is allowable under the laws that pertain to your case and what your best negotiated outcome looks like. Set time limits to deal with your complaint. Whistleblowing should not own your life.

3. Research your options. Too many times whistleblowers have been so deep in the trenches that they have not spent enough time knowing what the best outcome looks like. Read, learn, and explore what other whistleblowers have achieved or realized was important in the end. Knowing your options will prevent you from being caught off guard if a resolution or settlement occurs.

4. Build your support network. You will need an attorney for your case but consider who your other allies could be – a mentor, elected officials, journalists, a chaplain, advocacy groups aligned with your cause, or a peer support group, like Whistleblowers of America (WoA), which is a trauma informed peer support network.[3] Put a team of positive influence around you to counter negativity.

In Part 2 of Understanding and Preventing the Psychosocial Impacts of Whistleblowing, I’ll offer additional thoughts and suggestions of ways that whistleblowers can protect themselves and recover from the trauma.

Jacqueline Garrick, LCSW-C is the Founder of Whistleblowers of America

[1] Springer Nature

[2] PTSD is a diagnosis with criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5th edition text revision (DSM-5 TR) published by the American Psychiatric Association in 2022.

[3] Whistleblowers of America