Blog: Battling the bullies

Bullying in the NHS continues to be a problem and the Covid-19 pandemic has created an even more pressurised environment for hospital doctors, writes HCSA National Officer Rob Quick

The Covid-19 pandemic is, for some HCSA members, creating an even more pressurised environment in the workplace. I suspect that some managers are using the pandemic as a smokescreen to cover their own ineptitude and poor people management skills.

Bad or incompetent managers who resort to bullying appear to have little or no understanding of the impact that their behaviour has on individual clinicians. And while front line doctors are fighting the worst symptoms of the virus, they are sometimes doing so with the anxiety and stress brought about by bullying.

In recent months I have seen members pressurised to return to work from sick leave, change job plans or experiencing racism and harassment. Some trainees have felt pressurised to accept last-minute changes to rotas and to work with unsafe staffing levels.

Recently we learned a new phrase when Home Secretary Priti Patel was accused of and, after an independent investigation, found guilty of "unintentional" bullying and harassing civil servants working in the Home Office. She was accused of shouting and swearing at colleagues and subordinates. The Prime Minister chose to ignore the findings of the investigation.

Incidentally, I do not accept the concept of "unintentional bullying".

When it comes to the NHS, the 2019 staff survey in England showed that 19 percent of staff had experienced bullying or harassment in the last year from colleagues and 13 percent of staff had experienced bullying or harassment in the last year from their manager, which demonstrates how this continues to be an issue in healthcare.

The HSJ reported this week that the number of whistleblowing concerns raised with the Care Quality Commission almost doubled in December, with the most common complaints around staffing levels and leadership.

The National Officer team at the HCSA have a growing number of cases relating to bullying of doctors by managers and colleagues. We see at first hand the destructive impact on individuals and their families. Bullying and harassment is an insidious disease that has a direct impact on colleagues’ mental health and wellbeing.

"Car park freeze syndrome" is not often discussed, but it is a real demonstration of the impact on some of our colleagues. The victim of bullying arrives in the hospital car park, spots the car of the perpetrator and she/he freezes. They cannot get out of the car, or maybe even have a "meltdown". And sometimes they start the car and go home. I have witnessed this personally when I worked in the NHS, and I have heard similar stories from HCSA members.

Bullying can have a deep and long-lasting impact on an individual. In extreme situations this can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Many members ask for advice about issues and challenges they are faced with in the day to day work. Often many members don’t recognise that what is happening to them is actually bullying and harassment.

So, what do we mean by "bullying and harassment"?

In the Equality Act (2010) harassment is defined as "unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic (this includes gender, race, religion, sexuality and disability), which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual".

Bullying is not specifically defined in law, but in their advice leaflet for employees, ACAS give the following definition: "Bullying may be characterised as offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient."

It is clear from HCSA’s work with members that bullying and harassment encompasses a wide spectrum of behaviours. This ranges from very serious instances to very minor but irritating cases of poor interpersonal behaviour and poor people management.

From my own NHS experience, I know that there are some senior colleagues who have excellent clinical skills but put them in a management or leadership role then common sense seems to go out of the window and their ability to people manage is non-existent. Peer-to-peer bullying and harassment may be the result of professional jealousy or personality conflict, disagreements about treatment or other conflicts.

Some HCSA members are wrongly accused of bullying and we can advise those members on preparing for an investigation.

Cyber bullying is a more modern phenomenon. Sometimes it may not be seen at first as bullying (So, for example, demands by late-night or weekend emails to prepare reports might be seen as part of the job) but pressures like this can lead to an impact on our health and wellbeing.

If you think you are being bullied or harassed our initial advice is as follows:

  • check your employer’s local policy and procedure
  • find out whether your employer offers mediation or has a designated bullying advisor. They will be trained to offer support and help.
  • keep a diary or record of the harassment.
  • and of course, if you need support seek out your local HCSA hospital representative. Contact our head office or visit our website for more details.