Career advice

The best way to beat bullies at work

Bullying and harassment are a problem among NHS staff, but there are strategies that will help you to cope

Bullying and harassment are a problem among NHS staff, but there are strategies that will help you to cope

Picture: John Behets

Over the past few years a lot of media attention has been given to the increasing levels of aggression and violence shown towards NHS staff. But what isn’t so widely broadcast is the high levels of unacceptable behaviour among healthcare colleagues.

Perhaps this is because the public needs to hold on to the idea that doctors and nurses will do no harm, even to each other.

Yet the National Bullying Helpline says up to 80% of work-related calls it receives come from public-sector employees, predominantly NHS staff.

This shows that internal bullying is a very real problem among NHS workers, including nurses. In fact, the issue is so widespread among the profession that workplace bullying is one of the topics to be debated at this year’s RCN Congress in May.

Grace under pressure

If like me you grew up in the 1980s you may remember the cover of the album Grace Under Pressure by the rock band Rush. It showed an egg being held in a clamp, and always fascinated me – at what point would the pressure be too much and the egg shatter?

For nurses, working under extreme pressure has become the norm. Given the demands thrown at you on every shift, it is essential that you are able to protect and stand up for yourself so that you, like the egg on the album cover, can stay below the breaking point threshold.

But this doesn’t have to be at the expense of your colleagues. There are ways to retain grace, even under the intense pressures faced by NHS nurses.

If you are being bullied…

There are countless reasons why someone may act in a bullying way, often due to their own feelings of insecurity. Although this may offer an explanation there is no excuse for such behaviour, and the effect on the person being bullied can be devastating.

Regardless of how bad you are feeling inside, try to remember that what is happening is not your fault and it doesn’t mean you are a bad nurse. In fact, research shows that workplace bullies often target people who they perceive to be better than them.

If you are being bullied it is vital that you seek support as soon as possible. Even though it may be hard, try speaking to your line manager, occupational health department or union rep. Keeping a diary of what has happened, and how it made you feel, can also help.


Impact not intent

Unlike harassment, which is clearly defined under the Equality Act 2010, there is no legal definition about what constitutes bullying. It is widely agreed though that bullying is unwanted behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated or offended. The important aspect to stress here is ‘makes someone feel’.

Former interim managing director of the NHS Leadership Academy Karen Lynas says: ‘Experiencing bullying isn’t about the intent of the perpetrator, it’s about the experience of the person who is feeling bullied.’

A good starting point for reflecting on how you interact with colleagues is to ask yourself if the effect you are having on others is what you want it to be. If not, what can you change and how?

Getting the balance right

When you are able to be calmly assertive and stand up for yourself, such as saying no to extra shifts or workload, you are acting from a place of self-respect. You are saying ‘I matter’ and over time this repeated behaviour will increase your confidence and help lower stress levels. But finding the right balance can be hard.

Think of assertive behaviours as if they are in the centre of a see-saw. At either end lie self-righteousness – which can easily be interpreted as an attitude of superiority – and defensiveness, often interpreted as dominance.

The behaviours at either end of the see-saw can clearly have a negative effect on the other person, yet it’s a delicate tipping point. Without ongoing self-reflection, it can be easy to slide one way or the other, especially when you are under continual stress.

Ultimately, you can’t control how someone else will react to what you are saying or how you are saying it. Your responsibility is to ensure you act in an open, fair and respectful way, even if you are disagreeing with what’s being said or asked of you.

Staying in control

Here are some tips:

  • Take a moment to consider where the other person is coming from. While you may think, ‘I don’t have time for this,’ making some pauses in a conversation means you are less likely to react without thinking. Taking two or three deep breaths can help.
  • Keep it professional and not personal. It’s okay to challenge someone but keep your response factual and relevant, and not a personal attack. Don’t accuse or blame the other person, as it could come across as defensive. If you need to, back up what you can or cannot do with evidence.
  • Keep your integrity. You want to be firm but fair and take a consistent approach with everyone.
  • Keep conversations open. Ideally, you want to have a discussion, so try to avoid being dictatorial. There will be times when you have to tell someone what to do, especially in an emergency, but you can still show courtesy to the other person.
  • Don’t follow the crowd. If you simply copy the approach taken by colleagues you may be adding to a bullying culture.
  • Be brave. Saying, ‘I didn’t mean it like that’ is not an excuse. Apologise straight away if you think something has come out the wrong way or if you have clearly upset someone.

Where to find help

The RCN has produced guides offering advice to nurses who may be experiencing bullying and harassment at work (see below).

RCN members can get confidential support and assistance free of charge to help them deal with personal and work-related issues. To make an appointment with the RCN counselling service, which operates from 8:30am-8:30pm seven days a week, 365 days a year, call the RCN on 0345 772 6100. A motion on bullying is on the agenda at this year's RCN Congress.

The Samaritans offer a safe place to talk any time about anything that is troubling you, including job-related stress or anxiety. Calls to the Samaritans’ number, 116 123, can be made free from any phone at any time.

Mandy Day-Calder is a life/health coach and former nurse

Further information

This is a free article for registered users

This article is not available as part of an institutional subscription. Why is this? You can register for free access.