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Bullying: it never went away

07 July 2022
Volume 31 · Issue 13

Workplace bullying is widespread, with negative impacts on organisations and employees. In our profession, there is a real potential for it to have a negative impact on the people we offer care and support to. Bullying and harassment of staff by co-workers and managers negatively affects how teams work. Where there is bullying, staff will be less willing to own up to any mistakes or to report any concerns. Regardless of these serious ramifications, organisations (including our NHS) do not deal appropriately with this malignant problem. Although organisations may have anti-bullying policies in place, often they fail to provide sufficient protection to employees from the damage that can be caused by bullying.

Our Code (Nursing and Midwifery Council, 2018) makes it clear that all registrants, at all times, must be honest and act with integrity, and must treat people fairly without discrimination, bullying or harassment. The NHS Constitution (Department of Health and Social Care, 2021) proclaims that all staff are entitled to healthy and safe working conditions, in an environment that is free from harassment, bullying or violence. Yet we continue to ‘eat our young’ and this affects job performance.

The Secretary of State for Health recently announced leadership changes after a review found bullying – he described the situation as ‘stark’ (BBC News, 2022). Minister, bullying never went away. It has never been addressed, merely brushed under the carpet. The NHS People Plan (NHS England/NHS Improvement and Health Education England, 2020) made reference to bullying three times, in the 2021/22 Priorities and Operational Planning Guidance (NHS England/NHS Improvement, 2021) there was no reference to bullying, despite its prevalence. This ‘head in the sand’ approach will only perpetuate abhorrent behaviour.

The review's recommendations (Messenger and Pollard, 2022) have called for an improvement in equality, diversity and inclusion, to put in place clear routes to progression and promotion, instigate a simplified appraisal system focused on how people have behaved, not just what they have achieved, the development of consistent management standards and encouraging and supporting leaders and managers so they are able to take on the most difficult roles associated with bullying and harassment. Leaders of organisations where there are high levels of harassment by and against nurses must be called to account, they should be required to publish the actions that they are taking to reduce these levels and to help their staff report occurrences.

Discrimination, harassment and bullying have no place anywhere in health and care sectors. The NHS must take action to establish a culture of interpersonal respect, as opposed to simply introducing policies where no one takes responsibility. We are all of us responsible for preventing and tackling bullying, harassment and the abuse of staff as well as creating a culture of civility and respect. Policies, procedures and training instigated in isolation will not change organisational culture. The approach needs to be much more nuanced than this, we must take it seriously and recognise the importance of human factors. Employers and regulatory bodies must be proactive, not reactive. The next People Plan needs to acknowledge that there are ongoing issues that will continue unless they grasp the nettle, regardless of how difficult and unpleasant a task this might be. Enabling employee wellbeing can only be effective where there is respect throughout the whole of the organisation. Empty rhetoric will not make this distasteful problem go away. A half-hearted, tick-box approach must no longer be tolerated.