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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)

  • I have had to leave my post due to being bullied and harrassed by two senior members of staff. If that hasn't been bad enough, the management and support to get me back to work in another post has caused a million times more anguish and despair resulting in all the feelings initially felt been blown out of the water. An organisation is only as good as the managers who run it. There seems to be no protection for employees even though policies are in black and white and there to protect us. The battle for justice continues!!

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  • I have just left nursing after many years. At the time of leaving two new staff nurses had started on the ward. They had just finished there training. I felt really worried for them, they are young and not emotionally intellegent(which i think all nurses have to have). How will they cope with bullying from, not so much staff on the ward as it is a very good team, but by one particular consultant, bed managers that are forcing them to admit new patients when they know there isn't the staff and the ward already has poorly patients and a couple of patients who are very confused and everyone is taking turns to watch them. Also, bullying from relatives that will try to intimadate them.
    I have been an excellent nurse over the last eight years but the enviroment we have to work in is unhealthy and i no intention ever of returning.

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  • I am now old and wise,a nurse for many years. when I came here many years ago to follow my nursing career, I could not speak english very well and could not express myself effectively.I was bullied,ill treated and was called many horrible names.I am still in nursing and now I know exactly how to deal with bullies. I am a mentor and I take great pride in helping my young staff nurses and students how NOT to be bullied.

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  • I agree with all of this. I qualified as a registered nurse only two years ago, coming from an entirely different background, and have been angered, disappointed and dispirited by the bullying I have both directly experienced and witnessed. The ward where I now work has a couple of known bullies who have actually driven staff away over the years. Despite innumerable complaints about their attitude and behaviour, absolutely nothing has been done. They have continued on their merry way, now presumably thinking they are untouchable. it's time the NHS collectively challenged all bullying behaviour and eradicated it, otherwise a lot of good staff will be lost.

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  • I am at present studying hard to apply to be a student nurse in Septmber 2010. I am a mature student and nursing is my dream - however i keep reading articles on bullying in nursing and i must admit its worrying - am i doing the right thing? making such a massive commitment to work amongst intimidation & bullying - its supposed to be caring profession, i just dont get it ? Arrogant consultants i can sort of understand but amongst colleagues ? i must be so niave ! What to do ?

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  • Having been bullied for the past 6 months in my current job, I decided to make a formal complaint to the service manager as well as Human resources. I was warned by some of my colleagues that nothing will happen - and indeed nothing happened. I decided the best thing for me was to get another Job. After several unsuccessful interviews I finally got one just to be given a bad reference from my manager. Its a shame that sometimes the same people that bully us are the same ones that have to give us refereces. This means that to get a good referece one has to endure all the stress and hardships that comes with bulling without complaint.

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  • as a student nurse I am usually ignored - arrive on the ward, nobody says hello or smiles. The HCAs are always ready to tell me what I've done wrong but there's precious little positive feedback. I'm developing the hide of a rhino to cope. Very surprised still, in my third year, that this goes on.

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  • I am a student nurse in my second year and a mature student who has worked in both the private and public sectors. I had not experienced being talked over, ignored, spoken to as though I have the intelligence of a squashed amoeba, having to keep nagging to get skills taught/assessed, etc. until going on placement. I really don't know how much more I can take. The placements are amazing in that the patients are amazing. The problem is definitely the staff in many many places and the management and morale of the employees.
    I want to be a nurse. I don't want to be bullied nor do I want to become a bully. If, as a student, you show willing - it can be like painting a target on your butt and placing a pointy hat on your head. Don't get me wrong, there are amazing nurses in amongst it all but they sometimes seem to be few and far between.
    It's hard staying motivated but I hope to be able to work somewhere where staff have the same work ethos as I do and can support each other, celebrate strengths and put the patients first. Not too much to ask I hope?

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  • I was bullied 8 years ago by a manager. I went to another post in the same specialism and was told I was an excellent nurse from a number of colleagues, managers and patients but I've never regained my confidence clinically, as a result I moved into a non-clinical role - that is both a loss for me and the profession.

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  • AS a nurse who has been a victim of bullying and when reported to management nothing happened and eventually I was reported to the NMC as punishment while the bully was promoted to H grade. The nhs does not want to change and never will unless strict rules are followed and alleged bullies are suspended until the investigation is done. I personally know several nurses who were made to cry by a bully but didnt report it because they knew that nothing would be done. and needed a good referance. the ridiculousness is that The ward manager gave me a referance letter and then 2 months later reported me to the NMC. but in the end the matrons testimony was not believed by the NMC , but she still is matron

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