To err is human

People who work in healthcare, like the rest of us, make mistakes. If someone flicks on the indicator to turn left in the car but accidentally turns on the wipers, or goes upstairs to find socks and then completely forgets why they are there then this is mildly inconvenient. In healthcare these same mistakes, particularly in combinations, can result in patient harm. In difficult and stressful circumstances where staffing levels are poor, equipment isn’t working, IT systems aren’t communicating and demand is high, mistakes are sometimes inevitable. Even when no specific mistake is made, sometimes the patient outcome we would want isn’t achieved, and this can also impact clinicians.

Of course, when a mistake happens and a patient is harmed, the focus should be on supporting the patient and/or their family, keeping them involved in what is going on and doing everything we can to avoid further harm. Sometimes, though, the person/people who make the mistake/s are left unsupported and, in some cases are punished (directly or indirectly) for something they did not intend to do. Almost no-one goes to work intending to harm a patient and yet in a survey we conducted, over 50% of the sample reported being involved in at least one adverse event during their career; the majority had experienced some kind of patient safety incident. So, as you read through the information on this site remember you are not alone. The feelings you might be experiencing are difficult to deal with but they will get easier. Many of the people in our survey were able to make changes to their own practice or the processes and organisations in which they worked to try to stop the same thing happening again. The people we spoke to (see videos) all mention the importance of talking to those around them about what happened and how they felt. This can also lead to positive change for you and your team.

The following diagram demonstrates the process that people often experience following an adverse event. More detail about each stage is available by clicking on the individual boxes in the diagram.

Recovery after an adverse patient event


Scott et al (2009) The natural history of recovery for the healthcare provider “second victim” after adverse patient events. Quality and Safety Health Care 18:325-330. Scott (2015) The second victim experience: Mitigating the harm. Devastating clinical events can traumatize the healthcare workers involved. American Nurse Today. 10(9), 8-11.

Of the three possible outcomes after an adverse event, we believe the gold standard should be to support staff to be self-compassionate, self-accepting, hopeful and forward looking, rather than feeling isolated and just surviving, or that they should no longer practice.

When should you seek medical advice? Red flag signs to watch out for

It’s normal to experience upsetting and confusing thoughts after a traumatic event, but most people improve naturally over a few weeks. If however you are still having problems 4-6 weeks after the traumatic experience, or if the symptoms are particularly troublesome (see the 3 red flags below), don’t suffer in silence. A range of very effective treatments is available to help you. Make an appointment to see your GP who can arrange the right support for you. It is also recommended that you talk to your line manager about the feelings you are experiencing, and they will be able to discuss the support available to you, which may include occupational health referral.

To hear about the experiences of other clinicians, watch our ‘personal stories’ on the home page.

Red Flag #1 Re-experiencing the event

Involuntarily and vividly re-living the traumatic event in the form of:

  • Flashbacks
  • Nightmares
  • Repetitive and distressing images or sensations
  • Physical sensations – such as pain, sweating, nausea or trembling
  • Constant, negative thoughts – such as repeatedly asking yourself questions that prevent your coming to terms with the event e.g. wondering why the event happened to you and if you could have done anything to stop it, which can lead to feelings of guilt or shame

Some people may experience all of these symptoms, others may only experience one or two.

Red Flag #2 – Avoidance and emotional numbing

Trying to avoid being reminded of the traumatic event. This usually means avoiding certain people or places that remind you of the trauma, or avoiding talking to anyone about your experience.

Many people try to push memories of the event out of their mind, often distracting themselves with work or hobbies.

Other people attempt to deal with their feelings by trying not to feel anything at all (referred to as ‘emotional numbing’). This can lead to becoming isolated and withdrawn, and even giving up activities you previously really enjoyed.

Red Flag #3 – Hyperarousal (feeling ‘on edge’)

Feeling very anxious and finding it hard to relax. Some people are constantly aware of threats and easily startled. This state of mind is known as hyperarousal. Hyperarousal often leads to:

  • Irritability
  • Angry outbursts
  • Sleeping problems / insomnia
  • Difficulty concentrating

Other warning signs that may accompany the 3 main groups above:

  • Self-harming or destructive behaviour – such as drug misuse or alcohol misuse
  • Other physical symptoms – such as headaches, dizziness, chest pains and stomach aches
  • Work-related problems and breakdown of relationships

Emotional support

Preparing staff for adverse incidents

When working in healthcare, every one of us faces challenging situations which have the potential to affect our psychological wellbeing. An event such as being involved in an adverse incident presents a high risk to our wellbeing, and in these situations the possibility of negative outcomes, such as depression or anxiety, is dependent on ‘resilience factors’, namely;

Higher self-esteem

Self-esteem is our overall subjective evaluation of our worth as a person. The smaller the gap between who we’d like ourselves to be and who we think we are, the stronger our self-esteem. Our self-esteem develops through achievements, our family, important relationships and many other sources. Higher self-esteem helps us deal with knock-backs because we have a more positive view of ourselves; we therefore tend to be more compassionate and less hard on ourselves. If we have low self esteem, i.e. we don’t value ourselves or rate ourselves highly, we are likely to find adverse patient events particularly damaging. In a way, such an event can feel like it is evidence to support our poor view of ourselves.

How can it be improved?

To strengthen your self esteem, try to nurture all aspects of yourself, not just your work-life. If your whole worth only comes from work, and something goes wrong there, this is a significant risk factor for your wellbeing. Think about what is important to you, what are your values? What other aspects of your life could you bring more into balance to boost your self-esteem? There are lots of helpful materials you can explore to boost your self esteem, such as the Mind website.

A more positive way of explaining events in your mind

How we explain negative events to ourselves can have a big impact on our wellbeing. Whether we view the causes of events as internal or external, global or specific, or unstable or stable will either be detrimental to, or protective of our self esteem.

Detrimental to self esteem

Protective of self esteem


Internal: the event happened because of personal factors inside, such as abilities, traits, feelings.

External: the event happened due to situational factors.


Global: the cause of an event will determine outcomes in other situations (generalisation)

Specific: the cause of an event is unique – a one-off.


Stable: the event happened because of stable, unchanging factors.

Unstable: the event happened because of unstable, temporary factors.

For example, consider the different possible explanations for forgetting a friend’s birthday:

Does not support good self esteem

Supports good self esteem

“Oh no!! That’s awful. She’s never going to forgive me. I’ve been so forgetful lately – I feel like my memory’s escaping me and it’s getting worse! If I forgot this, who knows what I’ll forget next?”

“I can’t believe I forgot! It’s not like me to forget – but I’ve been under so much stress lately. I’ll send her a sorry I forgot card and set reminders in future!”


Internal: It’s due to personal factors in me

External: It’s due to situational factors.


Global: My whole memory is escaping me

Specific: It’s because of recent events


Stable: It’s a worsening problem and likely to last.

Unstable: It’s temporary/not a permanent state of affairs.

How can it be improved?

Explanatory styles are often habitual for many of us, but they can be changed to become more supportive, thereby boosting your resilience when faced with a difficult event. The first step is becoming aware of your thought processes and learning to recognise how you explain negative events. Then you can start to work on challenging unhelpful, toxic thoughts and replacing them with more compassionate ones.

Try this link for more information:

Lower perfectionism

Perfectionism is associated with being unable to adapt your extremely high standards – and this creates rigidity with regard to your thinking and actions. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you continue to put yourself under unhealthy pressure and make yourself feel even worse.

How can it be improved?

By developing greater ‘mental flexibility’, this can enable you to adapt your standards. So if you’re feeling stronger you can strive, but if you’re feeling overwhelmed, you ease off the pedal and temporarily lower your standards until this phase has passed. There are lots of useful books and sites on how to reduce perfectionism. For example, try:

For many people, being involved in a patient safety incident is an intensely emotional time. Feelings of distress, self-doubt and fear are common and may persist long after the original incident. However, there are many sources of support available:

Profession specific resources

Ambulance staff

The Ambulance Staff Charity:

NHS Employers also has a section dedicated to the ambulance workforce: (this may be more relevant to managers)

Doctors and medical students

A number of organisations provide resources for doctors and medical students who are struggling psychologically. In addition to the resources listed below, there may be speciality specific help available, for example through your Royal College.

  • The British Medical Association (BMA) provides counselling and peer support to all doctors and medical students, regardless of BMA membership, free of charge. BMA counselling offers access to professional telephone counsellors 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. There is also the option of speaking to another doctor in confidence through the peer support service (tel: 0330 123 1245).
  • TheDoctors Support Network is a confidential peer support group for doctors and medical students with mental health concerns.

Nursing staff

RCN – RCN Direct offers access to free counselling. Appointments can be made by calling them on 0345 772 6100 between 8.30am and 8.30pm, seven days a week.

UNISON – ‘There for you’ provides support for dealing with personal problems at home. They can be contacted on 020 7121 5620 or email:


Pharmacist Support – The Listening Friends helpline offers the chance to talk through concerns with trained volunteers. Available on 0808 168 5133.

We are open to adding further resources to this section. Please contact us via the survey if you can recommend a profession specific resource that we can add.

Additional resources

NHS Practitioner Health Programme

Practitioner Health is a free, confidential NHS service for doctors and dentists across England with issues relating to a mental health concern, including stress or depression or an addiction problem, in particular where these might affect work. Publications including ‘Doctors deserve to work in an environment that doesn’t make them sick’ are available here.

Trade Union Support

People involved in a patient safety incident may be a member of a Trade Union and can get professional and practical support to help you through this difficult time. Many of them offer specific professional support and advice and can act as a representative on your behalf if needed. You can find a list of the NHS Trade Unions through the NHS Social Partnership Forum.

UNISON – ‘There for you’ provides support for dealing with personal problems at home. They can be contacted on 020 7121 5620 or email: