Focusing on bullying alone means many different kinds of negative behaviour in the workplace are tolerated and not dealt with, argues Rachael Pope
Negative behaviour between staff continues to be a destructive problem in the NHS, according to literature, survey data and academic research. This is despite various policies, reports, initiatives and directives over many years.
People are still being emotionally and psychologically damaged by the behaviour of managers/team leaders and colleagues. Of course the damage does not just affect them, but also affects the community around them.
In a recent article (Santry, 2009), Sir Ian Kennedy, on retiring from the Healthcare Commission, is reported as giving “a sombre warning about the ‘corrosive’ impact of bullying among NHS staff”, saying it was “permeating the delivery of care”. Santry (2009) posed the question: “But why is bullying so widespread in an institution devoted to caring?”
That is an extremely good question and has been asked on a number of occasions in literature. The behaviour that is rightly expected for patients is in sharp contrast to what is often tolerated for staff.
The broader term of negative behaviour covers any behaviour that is disrespectful and undermines or violates the value and dignity of an individual. In the workplace it is behaviour that damages individuals and organisations. Within that term we could use words such as incivility, aggression or abuse, but more commonly we use the words bullying and harassment. We could also use the words unkind, unpleasant or nasty behaviour.
Our research report in this issue shows that all negative behaviour, however defined, is damaging and has implications for patient care. Incivility that is not defined as bullying has very similar effects as incivility also classed as bullying.
“There needs to be a huge change in attitude so that staff welfare is given utmost priority at the most senior levels of the NHS and in individual organisations”
From observation and experience, the narrowness of focus on using words such as bullying and harassment is causing some practical workplace problems. It seems that organisations and managers will go to extreme lengths to avoid defining any behaviour as bullying.
It is almost as though if it is not called bullying, then it does not count, and no-one has to do anything about it. It seems to produce a generalised paralysis and lack of action. We do indeed need to think broader than bullying.
Whatever term is used, the problems of dysfunctional teams and workplaces still need to be resolved. Relatively minor behavioural problems can cause difficulties for years due to lack of trust.
Research shows that organisations with happier staff have better patient outcomes and satisfaction ratings. However, the NHS seems to have high tolerance towards unkind and sometimes nasty behaviour.
There needs to be a huge change in attitude so that staff welfare is given utmost priority at the most senior levels of the NHS and in individual organisations. The biggest need is for honesty and individual and organisational self-assessment.
There also needs to be a clear expectation of positive behaviour throughout the organisation. All staff - but particularly leaders – need to be assessed on the basis of personal qualities and behaviour as well as competencies.
We need to develop organisations where there is “dignity at work within a caring supportive culture” (The UK National Work-stress Network, 2009).
Professor Michael West, speaking at the 2005 HR in the NHS conference, said we need to create communities that are kind, and that leaders should be kind.
These are essential objectives and we all need to play our part for the benefit of staff and patients.
RACHAEL POPE is physiotherapy clinical specialist in women’s health, Bridport Community Hospital, Dorset.
Santry, C. (2009) Bullying: the ‘corrosive’ problem the NHS must address. Health Service Journal, 23 April, 2009.
The UK National Work-stress Network (2009) The network’s aims.