NHS staff make hundreds of bullying and harassment complaints

Hundreds of bullying and sexual harassment allegations have been made against NHS staff over the past five years, further highlighting the “toxic environment” present in many hospitals.

The number of formal complaints about bullying and harassment in NHS England hospitals increased from 420 in 2013-14 to 585 in 2017-18, data obtained by the Guardian has shown.

However, only a fraction of these complaints resulted in dismissal or disciplinary action. At the Royal Free hospital in London, where 160 complaints were made over a five-year period, only 26 led to action being taken.

Dr Anthea Mowat, chair of the British Medical Association (BMA) representative body, said the formal complaint numbers were the just “tip of the iceberg” with staff at all levels affected.

“Ultimately, this impacts the safety and wellbeing of patients, as staff who are either directly experiencing bullying, or are working in a toxic environment, will be unable to deliver the level of professional care they are capable of doing,” she said.

The publication of the figures follows scathing comments made about the health service’s “dysfunctional” culture by NHS England chairman Lord David Prior earlier this month. He suggested that its target-driven culture had allowed “gaming” and “bad behaviours” to develop, and that its “top-down hierarchal control” had been very damaging for its culture.

One surgeon told the Guardian that he had received racist comments while operating and claimed junior staff are often bullied into working longer shifts to cover areas that are understaffed.

“The latter has got worse over the last three to four years. I am not sure if bullying is endemic as an NHS thing, but it is in certain hospitals. There are certain trusts in London where investigations have taken place and it’s been remarked that there is a culture of bullying. There are certain hospitals where it is more common. Racism, for example, is more indirect, but still a problem,” he said.

Last year, staff at a hospital trust being investigated over a high number of baby deaths reported high levels of bullying and harassment, with many “fearful” about raising concerns.

The BMA has made several recommendations on how bullying and harassment in the NHS can be addressed. These include encouraging bystanders to be more active when they witness bullying taking place, providing more training on giving and receiving effective feedback and enabling early intervention to tackle low-level unprofessional behaviour before it escalates to bullying or harassment.

19 Responses to NHS staff make hundreds of bullying and harassment complaints

  1. Avatar
    David Hopkins 3 May 2019 at 9:09 am #

    Whilst I appreciate that bullying in any work environment is unacceptable. I feel that your article does not fully explore the extent of the toxic culture that truly exists in the NHS. When Identifying the number of cases made, the article appears to conclude that all cases are genuine. In my experience this is not the reality. Managing performance and competence can be extremely challenging in the NHS. This is not only an issue for managers, but also for nurses who can find themselves as the senior member of staff on a ward, having to manage, health care assistants and agency nurses.

    The reality is there are members of staff that lack competence, do not have a professional attitude and do not have a patient-centered approach. As someone who does posses these qualities, you have to make a choice. Do you appropriately challenge these behaviours or ignore them? But you challenge at your peril. There is strong likelihood that a false accusation of bullying will be made. The impact of any allegation is extremely stressful. You might be suspended or asked to work in another hospital whist the slow machine of the NHS investigatory process judders into action. Meanwhile the original incident will remain unresolved. The person who made the allegation will be protected and will face no sanction even if the allegation is proved to be false. So, who is the real victim and who is the real bully in these situations?

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      Ben 12 Oct 2019 at 12:33 pm #

      I would have to disagree with this. Bullying and harassment Is rife and under reported. Look at all the research, people who speak up to improve services have historically faced bullying and harassment. It’s totally unacceptable. In every job their are false claims but NHS is a toxic environment to work.

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      Hank Des 24 Feb 2020 at 5:06 pm #

      The victim is always the consultants or registrars , nurses , porters and the person who makes the allegation is always winning, so the best way to do things is always be the first to complaint even if it not genuine .The managers are always out of touch with the the teams and patients, the reform should be directed at hospital managers as most are not fit for purpose. always be the first to complain and always document your concerns. That way you will never be a victim. The managers will always pick and choose who they want to bully so always complain about them as well, if you feel they are made a wrong decision. Which happens all the time, get it documented and ask for a copy.

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    Michele Cable 25 Nov 2019 at 9:32 am #

    I disagree with David Hopkins… there is a lot of bullying going in in hospitals. I know several nurses who have been bullied in their job and have suffered with depression with it and it has cost them their job. I also know they moved away to another hospital and are so happy staff are much nicer, etc…. there is no need to bully staff. You have to be bullied and made to leave your job to understand how it feels.. a lot of nurses don’t speak up .
    I think bullying should be taken seriously. The NHS are losing a lot of staff through bullying… we all work under pressure – no excuse to be a bully. If only all these people got together and exposed all the bullying in one hospital perhaps something could and would be done. Nurses and Drs do a great job we need these people but not bullies.

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      Hank Des 24 Feb 2020 at 5:28 pm #

      In fact even the health boards directors know about the harassment and bully campaigns from certain hospital managers and internal staff who operate as gangs and group together when required.

      The medical directors will always state a culture of bullying was something that they did not recognise personally. but they’re part of the problem as well The whole system needs looking into and hospital managers need to reapply for there jobs again. As many are incompetent.

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    Mary 7 Dec 2019 at 8:16 am #

    I have a colleague who is onto her 4th bullying situation in the same Trust. The first was found no basis for bullying after 18 months of investigation because it was all psychological causing her depression and thoughts of killing herself. The second was a manager who was a close personal friend of the investigator in a department she got placed while the investigation took place who caused another episode of anxiety and depression. She then got relocated to another location in the same Trust and a woman started on her there for one and a half years which again caused anxiety and depression. She got relocated to another department after complaining and another woman started on her there after a month so she walked out of that department and complained to management. There appears to be no effective line management. Ensconced staff who do not know hospital policy and see new blood as threats to their status and popularly in a department. B&H policy is not enforced properly. You are not believed. You’re viewed as a serial complainer. I also have another colleague in another Trust who was in remission from cancer and she got bullied when she returned to her department. She has been fighting this ever since her complaint was not upheld since it was the old ‘no basis for bullying card’ that got played as it was all psychological. It makes me laugh of course it’s psychological and not physical as they wouldn’t get away with that.

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      Reg 3 Mar 2020 at 12:53 am #

      The NHS is absolutely riddled with psychopaths. All healthcare staff should be screened for personality disorders.

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    DR M 13 Dec 2019 at 11:52 pm #

    Mary, totally agree with you. I tried to raise issues of bullying at work and was told to address my own psychological issues. I am a doctor and have experienced severe bullying at the hands of other doctors in several jobs spanning seventeen years.

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    Caroline 8 Feb 2020 at 7:37 pm #

    Of course what is not covered is the bullying and victimisation of patients if they speak up. Worked in the NHS for 32 years and experienced bullying of all forms. It was micromanaging that out me off work for 4 months with no effort to help me back and when I did return one community clinic has been deliberately allowed to stop functioning but no action taken against the Managers. 4 months where patient referrals piled up.
    I am currently arranging an advocate to attend clinic appointments with me all because I exposed a service that failed to pick and respond to messages when I was ill. In response they start putting calls they make to me on speaker phone and suck in two staff to have the calls listened to. So much for NHS resources being stretched when they can do this. A Senior nurse knew about this as well which makes it worse. Now either the individuals who decided this did it off their own back or they are being played as part of a bigger agenda.
    The bigger agenda would be to manage me out the door because I took on the Trust about a misdiagnosis in another service at the same Trust.
    What do know having been a NHS employee and as a patient, the culture in the NHS is so toxic. Until Senior managers are sacked for cover ups, bullying and harassment then nothing will change and the scandals will continue. As for bullying the attitude if you flag that is that is just the way x is get over yourself.

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      Wayne 1 Apr 2020 at 11:42 am #

      Caroline, I’m a kidney transplant patient attending St James’s University hospital in Leeds. For 22 years I attended this hospital and the staff were really friendly and polite, but after my transplant I began to attend the transplant clinic. The senior nurse who was allotted to me for the first week, quite clearly took a dislike, and was often bad mannered. It was clear that she’d spoken to other members of staff, because over the course of the next week or two, other people, who i’d never even had dealings with me before, were also short and abrupt with me. I took it for almost 6 years, and in January 2020 I eventually complained. Complaining hasn’t improved things….

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        Caroline 20 May 2020 at 8:05 pm #

        Wayne It wouldn’t. My advice to anyone now is take it on the chin (including clinical errors) and don’t complain. I’ve had balls dropped resulting in me being ill so yes I’ll speak up about that because it shouldn’t happen. The update to my first post is that despite being given e-mail addresses and phone numbers of staff for contact by the staff I’ve not been told not to do so. The Managers are so think they don’t realise that the complaint policy states that concerns should be raised with staff first!
        What I do know is that any feedback or comment is classed as a complaint by the NHS and they don’t like improvement being suggested. The Managers then do what they do best which is to lie and become disingenuous. They seem to think that if they say something often enough they will be believed when it is obvious that they are talking out of their southern orifices. Plus they are not adverse to spinning and manipulating anything to suit an agenda. A staff member said I was abusive because I told her that my trust had to be earned after being let down. Not unreasonable. This person is beyond pity if a statement of fact is seen in that light but most likely did it to justify her putting phone calls on loudspeaker.

        What these Managers won’t see ever is the lapses in my care that have resulted in illness, laspses that were avoidable and shouldn’t have happened. Covid 19 has exposed these NHS Managers for what they are and I really hope that they get their karma. The NHS is run for Mangers and isn’t patient orientated. I have met many lovely NHS staff but the Managers are all of the same ilk and not fit to organise a bun fight in a bakery. I know the person I am and I am not abusive but that is convenient for these Managers to justify their bullying of me. The attitude seems to be take what you get and be grateful, if we harm or even kill you due to errors and system failures so what. I do also know that the numerous policies and procedures that NHS Trusts have are a waste of paper and ink because they are just for show and never followed.

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    Patricia Collins 24 Feb 2020 at 9:21 pm #

    I was bullied and sacked from my NHS post, I started legal proceedings and they settled out of court. The bullies were the HR Department (seniors and less senior staff, the HR Director, a senior manager and her middle management henchmen, the Occupational Health doctor, a senior nurse and a consultant didn’t help either. When I complained I was accused of making malicious allegations and suspended. Whilst working at this hospital the senior management spent many hours bullying me and playing games, forcing me to sit on an uncomfortable chair because I had a bad back, forced me to sit on a sloping floor, the Occupational Health doctor sent my personal medical details to people who shouldn’t have seen them, I was called in to kangaroo courts, told by a middle manager that I would be investigated by a senior manager who turned out to be his mother, had letters stuffed through my letter box at home by staff, forced to cancel a pre op appointment to go to a meeting, even though I was screaming in pain, the list is endless actually. All the while the Chief Executive was turning a blind eye. Some of these people were nurses by profession, other senior managers and board members were looking the other way. The advice is always to go to HR or Occupational Health but what if they are the bullies as in my case. How much money was spent here with these people on such high salaries playing sick games all day long and how much was spent on covering it all up. Until everyone in the NHS stands together it will never be stamped out. People did character witness statements and a couple of lovely colleagues did statements and backed me but the other selfish pathetic lot looked the other way. Shame on them as well as the bullies. The unions are at fault as well because the legal cover they claim to give to people doesn’t really exist so people don’t have anywhere to go. I was fortunate enough to be able to afford my own legal help but a lot of other people do not. The cash strapped NHS can though. It is tax payer funded bullying and I think all tax payers should be asking questions but they are not bothered until it affects them. I would not work for the NHS again if my life depended on it nor would I wish it on my worst enemy. I think someone has redesigned Hell and renamed it the NHS.

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      Hazel 3 Mar 2020 at 1:00 am #

      Agreed. Evil runs amok in the NHS. Jimmy Savile is a prime example – he was enabled by NHS managers, given the keys to the sweet shop while psychopathic NHS staff stood guard at his caravan as he raped children. I used to be a nurse, now I pull pints in a pub and I’m much happier.

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    Help!!!! 2 Mar 2020 at 7:55 pm #

    I just can said NHS employees are sufferings very high level of abuse because of the poor management training, example: Nurses being employed no matter experience because we are short of them and the give them management positions with not much experience in management, the low level of staff are manage with abuse, harassment and declaiming any improvement in their roles because they is not money and they are given positions that an similar duties that clinical Administrator with level experience… when we need nurses in the ward not sitting in a desk doing Asda shopping for the house or Matron doing presentations and analysis of data .. matron’s in my time they used to work alongside with nurse and make sure that care was provided a the best for quality clinical reports.. not just sitting ina desk and attending wards rounds to pretend they do a work…

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    Maree 20 May 2020 at 1:08 pm #

    I’ve been forced to leave three Trusts in the past 5 years to keep my sanity. Being an overseas trained nurse has done me no favours. Some certainly do seem to feel threatened by a newcommer and rather than give you a chance,cut you off at the knees. Once a few get on board to back each other up,it is you with the problem and being the difficult one.And yes,you become known as the serial complainer.Can’t retain or employ enough nurses in the UK,look after the ones prepared to work in the NHS
    Aussie nurse.

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      Caroline 20 May 2020 at 8:14 pm #

      I worked as a locum for years because I was fed up of the toxic culture. My philosophy was treat me well and respect me or I move on and I did.

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    Maree 20 May 2020 at 1:27 pm #

    Why is this. Actually worked with a lot over the last 30 years. Are they people with low self worth attempting to gain an identity by abusing others.

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      Caroline 20 May 2020 at 8:12 pm #

      Usually that is the defining characteristic of a bully who usually is incompetent in their job and doesn’t like being shown up even if it is someone just getting on with their job and avoiding politics. If bullies are challenged they either back down or exacerbate the bullying. If the latter then they are psychopaths.

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    Caroline 20 May 2020 at 8:27 pm #

    I fear for patients in the future because of attitudes by Managers and some Consultants in the NHS that they can do no wrong and even if care is poor it should just be accepted without question. Wrong that isn’t the right attitude and that forces out those who really want to do a good job. The NHS is like a Mafia organisation with a culture of fear and bullying which is much worse that it used to be. Patient safety is a farce, Trusts deliberately run with risks and if they get away with continue. if they don’t then they make life as difficult as possible for a complainant to get them to drop the complaint.
    Forget the CQC they are a waste of time. Forget the PHSO as they don’t do their job well, never give a full uphold and only 5% or less get an investigation. The whole NHS complaint process is rigged against the complainant in favour of the NHS and if there is any likelihood of legal action against a Trust then they go into overdrive to bully the patient. It disgusts me because until the toxic culture is thoroughly dismantled, managers sacked or jailed then sadly nothing will change and more lives will be ruined.It also means that no-one speaks up and so the status quo is preserved. I fully expect more scandals which the public appear to be immune to now, until it happens to them of course. Patient safety isn’t taken seriously and the old chestnut of learning from mistakes is a farce. The NHS Managers wing things and hope they get away with it i.e. that they don’t harm or kill someone that might be exposed.
    The problem in the NHS was making targets a priority. That meant that business took priority over patient care.
    The Covid 19 response of the NHS was classic. Shut down all other services when the obvious thing would have been to use the Nightingale Hospitals at the outset and keep the NHS running for essential other services. But then they didn’t have the staff for the Nightingale Hospitals. It is noticeable how many functions now are being down graded to more junior staff who don’t have the correct supervision but they will make good cannon fodder if something goes wrong to protect the elite cabals that exist.

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