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?