Whistleblowers are often lauded for their efforts in exposing fraud, waste, abuse, corruption, and other wrongdoing, but those heroic efforts can come at a high cost.
A recent whistleblower study conducted by Dutch researchers and published in the U.S. journal Psychological Reports assesses some of the material and psychological tolls whistleblowers typically experience when they stand up to illegal and unethical activity. The study concluded that whistleblowers need to be better protected from retaliation and other negative fallout when society benefits so much from their actions.
According to the empirical study, conducted by researchers at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, about 80 percent of whistleblowers reported experiencing very negative effects on their work and wages, and nearly half of study respondents reported negative impacts on their family life.
For about 45 percent of the whistleblowers, doing the right thing led to clinical levels of anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.
The study looked at the main outcomes for 27 Dutch whistleblowers who reported misconduct outside their organization, such as to a regulatory agency or the media. These whistleblowers, according to the study, turned to external sources after their complaints often resulted in retaliation and failed to generate positive change.
Th researchers compared the prevalence of mental health problems among whistleblowers to matched controls, including people with work disabilities, cancer patients, people without physical disease, and a representative sample of the Dutch population.
The study found that the prevalence of mental health problems among whistleblowers was about six times higher than among matched controls. The prevalence of mental health problems among whistleblowers was comparable to that of Dutch residents affected by a major disaster.
Half of the whistleblowers assessed in the study used mental health services within the past 12 months. The study also found that the mental health problems among whistleblowers can be enduring: “… recent whistleblowers did not differ in symptom levels from those who blew the whistle many years ago,” Tilburg University noted.
“The results indicate the importance of adequate and professional support for whistleblowers. It should be prevented that whistleblowers ‘pay the price’ for revealing misconduct, while society benefits from their actions,” the researchers noted.