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All staff should unite to stop bullying in the NHS


One in five NHS employees have experienced bullying in the last year, said yet another survey into the difficulties of working in the NHS. Our first reaction to this is to wonder if two in five are too scared to respond honestly to the survey while the other two didn’t hear the question properly.

Bullying has always confused us, hasn’t it? That an organisation that exists to deliver health and wellbeing can construct such destructive relationships among its staff.

It can make them feel threatened, disempowered and even afraid. And being a health service it often does it with a smile. The psychic equivalent of giving you a head massage before hitting you with a cricket bat.

We know bullying comes in many forms. From the aggressive healthcare support worker who takes a dislike to alternate students, to the inadequate consultant who treats everyone like they are his butler. And we know staff can feel bullied regardless of their position and that it is insidious. It damages services and dehumanises us all.

‘Bullying in an organisation that exists to deliver wellbeing is the psychic equivalent of giving you a head massage before hitting you with a cricket bat’

So it is helpful to be reminded by various reports that bullying happens and it should not be tolerated. However, don’t we also need to be aware of how the NHS creates the perfect circumstances for institutional bullying? Because it’s not just about people being unkind or careless and it’s not just about the nature and intensity of the work. It is often about politics, pressure and the threat to jobs and services, and it would be hypocritical not to acknowledge that.

At a time when political parties are preparing us for spending cuts, those who work in public services are left bracing themselves for anything from near impossible working conditions to redundancy. That generates insecurity and defensiveness. What sort of culture is it that offers a choice of working in near impossible conditions or risk losing your job? Where nervous senior managers manage the demands that come from above them rather than the needs of those they oversee? It is a bullying culture. One that leaves nurses and others exposed to the machinations of managerialism and the nonsense that is the internal market.

Everyone - regardless of grade or banding - is going to feel under pressure over the next couple of years. Nurses, doctors, managers, cleaners - all will be expected to make savings or sacrifices. They may even have to make choices that feel uncomfortable for a “greater good”, which has for too long been defined by politicians we neither respect nor trust. That is a bullying culture. The only way we can do anything about it is to begin to realise and articulate the fact we are all - doctors, nurses, cleaners and managers - bound not by the restraints of public spending but by our responsibility to best practice, innovation, high standards and professionalism.

Maybe it’s time to forget the false divides of banding, profession or job title and unite around a willingness to defend services together? The best way to stop a bullying and corrosive culture must surely be to help each other do the right thing?


Readers' comments (37)

  • As a student nurse in the 1990's, I reported the neglect and physical abuse of elderly patients on a Care of the Elderly ward. Instead of these patients being protected, my clinical mentor and the directorate manager tried to force me to retract my statement. I refused. However, because I had dared to report the abuse, I was made to continue working on the ward, and repeatedly bullied by every single member of ward staff. I was punished for simply revealing the truth. The staff, managers, and clinical nurse mentors allowed this kind of practice to continue for many years, until some forced resignations ensued. Even then, the individuals involved were allowed to walk away without fear of any real consequence. Over the years, I have seen bad and abusive behaviour covered up time and time again. And as a nurse, if you report it, you are either ignored or at increased risk of being bullied and abused yourself. The bullying and abuse of both patients and nurses will continue until managers choose to take a stand, and make it quite clear that abuse and bullying will not be tolerated. Unfortunately, far too many managers appear to be sociopathic bullies themselves, only interested in reaching their targets and promoting their own careers.

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  • Anonymous | 25-Aug-2011 6:31

    many tragic stories here of good nurses trying to protect their patients and themselves. what happens when one is accused of negligence for not reporting abuse towards patients or to any other human being and colleague for that matter? surely any sort of abuse must be illegal?

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  • George Kuchanny

    From the huge number of comments we can see that Mark Radcliffe's article is timely and important.
    I well remeber seeing one nurse telling another one off for being 'miss perfect' when all she did was indicate that a patient could hear!

    This is also bullying and should be trodden on very hard. Get bullying seen off and watch the culture change for the better.

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  • I practised for over 30 years and was never the subject of "bullying". I was, however, subjected to an accusation of "bullying" on one occasions:- the first occurrence involved a Staff Nurse who on a regular basis absented herself from work on the basis that she was "sick" - I spoke to her about her problem and arranged for her to see an Occupational Health doctor. The OH doctor found that this lady was basically fit but thought he social circumstance was responsible for most of of her periods of "sickness". Further discussion resulted in my offering this lady the opportunity of reducing her working hours - she accepted this offer. I never saw her again -------------- she went "sick" supported by her GP with medical certificates which alleged she was suffering "work induced stress".

    Six moths later she resigned and followed up with a solicitors letter in which she claimed constructive dismissal based on the "bullying" she had suffered from her supervisor. Her claim was pursued to Tribunal --------- where thanks to my meticulous records and witnesses who supported the fact that I had been extremely fair in my dealings with this lady her claim was denied. In announcing the tribunals findings the Chairman described this lady as being manipulative and undertaking what amounted to a "fishing trip".

    But that does not end the storey ------- she later wrote to ask me if I would give her a "good" reference"!

    You will have guessed that I assured her that I would provide an honest and factual reference --------

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  • JRT | 7-Jan-2012 8:07 am

    seems she may have had little insight into her own behaviour but what a lesson to be learned. Just shows how carefully one has to tread when dealing with others especially when there are problems which may be their own personal ones. Just proves the importance of clear documentation.

    There is also occasionally bullying online here in the comments. I believe those who use this platform for this type of behaviour must do it at work too, and at worst with their patients - or do they exercise double standards?
    Again they fail to acknowledge that their behaviour is inappropriate.

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  • 4 years qualified and now in my 2nd post and still being the target for frustrated nurses. I get blamed for things which happen even when its my day off. Ive voiced how terribly unhappy I am, how my confidence is shot, how emotionally I am shattered. I have never worked in such a bitchy atmosphere in my life.
    I have only been in this job 3 months and already looking elsewhere, its about time bullying in the work place was make illegal before it pushes somebody to the extreme limits. Caring profession??? dont make me laugh!

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  • once bully starts and somebody is being victimised it is hard to stop.

    includes bullying on line. somebody who bullies in the comments is likely to do it elsewhere as well such as to colleagues or patients.

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