Tackling a culture of bullying

It’s time to take bullying out of healthcare. That’s the aim of an anti-bullying and undermining resource which has been launched by a coalition of health organisations including the Royal Medical Colleges.


Why is this campaign required? Surely with health being a caring profession bullying at most occurs in isolated incidences and only affects a few individuals? Sadly not! Studies have shown that over a quarter of NHS staff have experienced some form of bullying or undermining within the last year. And when someone is being bullied there are ongoing consequences not just for the individual, not just across the immediate team, but also in terms of levels of care and patient outcomes.


Shockingly, an analysis has suggested that bullying and harassment costs the NHS in England at least £2.28 billion per year. Moreover, in the perioperative area alone, 67% of adverse events, 71% of medical errors, and 27% of deaths have been attributed to bullying and disruptive behaviours by members of the health team.


Those statistics alone take bullying away from being a one-on-one behaviour. Quite simply, the responsibility for stamping out negative behaviour rests with every healthcare professional. With this in mind the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh have developed a set of standards which they expect all of their members to uphold. These include a requirement to challenge and report bullying and undermining behaviour, to investigate all allegations as appropriate, and to demonstrate exemplary professional behaviour in ensuring that they themselves do not bully or undermine colleagues, either deliberately or inadvertently.


Being honest, when patients’ lives and livelihoods are at risk and when the demand for services outstrips available resources, the provision of healthcare can be a stressful and demanding occupation. But when patient outcomes are negatively affected by negative behaviour, the answer has to be for health professionals to provide mutual support by working together to promote a culture of positivity.


The NHS isn’t alone in experiencing bullying behaviour. Other health professionals including dentists and physiotherapists may well have also experienced negative levels of behaviour and indeed so too will businesses in other walks of life. And whilst awareness and be prepared to challenge unacceptable behaviour is one line of approach, health leaders can also take action in other ways in order to reduce levels of stress. Working smarter not harder may be a cliché, but every time that technology is successfully deployed in order to reduce or smooth out routine tasks, potential sources of stress are removed.


That’s where true teamwork comes into play, not only looking out for each other on a day-to-day basis but also finding ways to help each other over the long-term. It might be something as simple as digitising patient notes in order to make access and transfer easier. It may be a concerted effort to reduce patient no-shows by telephoning or sending SMS text reminders. It may even be a move towards online booking of appointments in order to reduce administration time. Whatever the approach, when we stop undermining and start building positivity that we ourselves, our patients and the health service as a whole can only benefit.