Hard facts

OH professionals are reporting an increase in bullying and a distinct lack
of action to tackle the problem, according to new research.  By Eliza O’Driscoll

At the 1998 SOHN conference Occupational Health conducted an informal survey
among 60 delegates which found that one in three had been bullied by their line
manager and 60 per cent had come across colleagues or other staff who had been

Following the publication of the survey results we received a number of
letters and telephone calls from OH nurses detailing their own experiences of
bullying, which were often quite horrific. Common themes emerging from their
experiences were isolation, lack of support from colleagues and management and
the absence of a clear policy to deal with incidents of bullying.

We then devised a questionnaire (Occupational Health, July) asking readers
to help us establish the scale of the problem. It was a detailed survey which
asked about the organisation they worked in and their perception of how much
bullying existed within it and how it was tackled. There were also questions on
their personal experience of bullying.

Fifty-two readers responded to the questionnaire which was broken down into
four sections. First we wanted to establish what sort of employers we were
dealing with, then there was a series of questions designed to elicit the
employer’s formal attitude towards bullying. Further questions dealt with the
respondents view of their employer’s bullying policy and finally, respondents’
own experiences of bullying.

The employer

The majority of respondents worked in large organisations: two-thirds of
them in organisations of more than 1,000 employees and a third in organisations
of between a hundred and a thousand employees. Manufacturing (30 per cent) and
the NHS (27 per cent) represented the greatest number followed by the service
sector at 15 per cent.

Asked about their organisation’s attitude to bullying, more than two-thirds
of respondents felt their employer did not take bullying seriously. Forty-eight
per cent reported that there was no formal bullying policy within their
organisation, and 27 per cent said no one within their organisation had been
given responsibility for bullying. No respondent was able to give a positive
answer when asked if their organisation had carried out a survey within the
past few years to find out the extent of bullying; 60 per cent said it had not,
while 40 per cent did not know. An overwhelming majority of organisations (91
per cent) offered no formal training in dealing with bullying.

When it comes to dealing with bullying it seems that organisations are
ill-prepared. So how do they respond when faced with actual cases of bullying?
Not very well, by all accounts.

First we asked respondents whether bullying went on in their organisations.
Ninety per cent said they believed it did. Ninety-six per cent went on to say
that they were currently aware of incidents of bullying. (We are not sure how
to account for the 6 per cent who were aware of bullying incidents but still
thought that they did not happen within their organisation.)

Almost two-thirds thought that victims of bullying were reluctant to report
the case, while only 4 per cent thought that they were not. Nearly half thought
that incidents of bullying had increased in the past two years, a fifth thought
they had stayed the same and just 2 per cent believed they had reduced.

With regard to the amount of time it took cases of bullying to be resolved,
less than a fifth (19 per cent) were dealt with in less than six months, a
further 15 per cent in six to 12 months, while 20 per cent took more than a
year. One-third of respondents said they did not know how long it took to
resolve these cases.

Personal effects

When it came to respondents’ personal experiences of bullying, it was to be
expected that most would have been at the receiving end some form of bullying.
So it was no surprise to discover that 90 per cent of respondents had personally
been bullied. Of these, almost half (48 per cent) of respondents were being
bullied in their present employment and 29 per cent had been bullied in a
previous job. A substantial 12 per cent admitted to having been bullied in both
their current and previous positions.

And who was doing the bullying? Fellow OH professionals in many cases – 33
per cent pointed the finger at an OH nurse or nurse manager, followed by 30 per
cent who were bullied by an HR manager, 22 per cent by an OH doctor and 20 per cent
by a colleague.

Responses to being bullied varied, with more than half (52 per cent)
choosing to confront the bully directly and 46 per cent taking a complaint to
senior management.

Sadly, 40 per cent chose to leave the organisation, while only 30 per cent
approached a professional body. Just 17 per cent of respondents made use of
their organisation’s grievance procedure, while 9 per cent took legal action.

Finally, we asked if respondents had observed work colleagues in their own
departments being bullied. Two-thirds (65 per cent) had seen this happen.

Survey limitations

It must be stressed that this survey was of a small and self-selecting
sample. We are not attempting to claim that it represents a true reflection of
the scale of the problem among the universe of occupational health nurses.

Nevertheless, it is worrying to see the extent to which large organisations
are failing to tackle the problem of bullying, both on a preventive level, with
91 per cent of organisations offering no formal training in dealing with the
problem, none apparently having carried out a survey recently to find out the
extent of the problem, almost a third having no particular person designated to
take responsibility to deal with the problem and, most worrying of all, almost
half having no formal policy on tackling bullying.

No wonder only just over a third of cases were resolved in under a year.

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