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.

One Response to NHS staff make hundreds of bullying and harassment complaints

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    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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