Dean Royles, director of NHS Employers, wants to find solutions to bullying in the workplace
The old rhyme “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” starkly demonstrates what those of us involved in the management of people know to be false. Words do hurt.
Bullying in the NHS and elsewhere is a sensitive and difficult issue. The impact on individual staff can be devastating and the impact on sickness absence, productivity and staff turnover is well documented.
Employers in the NHS have made a concerted effort in recent years to tackle this. There is increasing recognition that encouraging a culture of openness and confidence is key, and a recent study looking at the experiences of staff in the North East bears this out.
A University of Durham survey of 3,000 staff at seven trusts concludes that trusts need to develop cultures whereby barriers are recognised and addressed, policies are seen as effective, and each report of bullying is treated seriously. It highlights cultural barriers that stop people reporting bullying; 14% of staff said they did not want to be seen as a troublemaker, while 11% were concerned that this would make the situation worse. A similar proportion of staff said nothing would change and that they would not report a bully who was more senior than them.
NHS Employers will report these findings to employers later this year, along with guidance and best practice. We are keen to support human resources staff and managers to improve their skills and confidence in managing this issue.
It will be difficult to achieve a big cultural shift if organisations and individuals do not have the ambition to support change at all levels. That means clear sign-up and support from boards translated into action by each manager and employee. It needs a shared endeavour.
Fifteen per cent of staff reported in the last NHS staff survey that they had experienced bullying, harassment or abuse from line managers or colleagues. The same number reported bullying, harassment and abuse from patients, their relatives or other members of the public in the previous 12 months.
Bullying can occur anywhere in an organisation so solutions need to be able to reach all parts of it. Where managers and staff work together, the results can be impressive.
An organisation can struggle to tackle bullying if it is rarely reported. Robust staff engagement and encouraging a culture of openness and trust are key in addressing under-reporting. Confidence to report bullying is directly related to confidence to report workplace concerns. The NHS staff survey encouragingly shows that staff now find procedures for reporting concerns to be fairer and more effective.
Trusts are finding diverse ways to achieve this. Luton and Dunstable Hospital Trust serves a community where almost one third of the population are from minority backgrounds. The trust implemented techniques to integrate equality awareness with its work to prevent bullying and harassment. Staff were invited to show their commitment by adding their hand prints to a paper wall in the hospital. Barnsley Hospital Foundation Trust appointed 10 harassment support workers, whose training was provided by a partnership between the hospital, Unison and the Department for Trade and Industry. There is more about these examples at www.nhsemployers.org.
The benefits to staff and employers of preventing bullying and harassment speak for themselves. The challenge for the NHS is build a cultural shift into transition planning to ensure that the NHS of the future is doing all it can to protect and support its most valuable resource - its staff.