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How I’m undoing the damage caused by workplace bullying

A nurse describes the professional and personal consequences of bullying by her manager

A nurse describes the professional and personal consequences of bullying by her manager


Picture: David Mitchell

I have worked in the NHS for more than three decades, and for many years had a successful and rewarding career – until recently, when being bullied by my manager almost destroyed me, both personally and professionally. 

About three years ago, I took a senior post in a prestigious hospital. From the outset, my manager criticised every clinical decision I took, and overturned every management decision I made. It seemed nothing I did was good enough.

After being criticised for raising concerns about unsafe practice and staffing levels in the team, I understand why some people do not raise their head above the parapet.

It made me start doubting myself

I had an impeccable health record and work ethic, but the bullying took its toll on my confidence and self-esteem. Work became unbearable, and I started doubting every decision I made.

I carried on going to work because I was determined to beat the bully. But I was on the edge, not sleeping or eating properly. I was worried that if I made a mistake at work, I would not be supported by my manager or employer.

A period of annual leave gave me some respite, and I hoped the situation would improve while I was away, but on my first day back it was evident that nothing had changed.

‘Senior people in the organisation also had first-hand experience of her bullying, but no one wanted to listen to me. It was easier to blame me’

I don’t recall making the journey home that day, I just remember opening the front door and telling my husband I couldn’t take it anymore, before breaking down in tears.

For the next four weeks I didn’t leave the house, other than to see my GP, and I had what I would describe as a ‘meltdown’. A call from my manager to see when I was returning to work made me hysterical, and the thought of having any further dealings with her just filled me with despair.

I was not the first person to experience bullying from this individual. Another member of the team had been on long-term sick leave due to her behaviour, and eventually left the organisation.

Senior people in the organisation also had first-hand experience of her bullying, but no one wanted to listen to me. It was easier to blame me and say I did not fit the organisation.

What to do if you need help

  • The RCN has produced an advice guide for nurses who may be experiencing bullying and harassment at work. Click here to download the guide
  • RCN members can get free, confidential support and assistance 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 offers a safe place to talk any time, about anything that is troubling you, including job-related stress or anxiety. Call free on 116 123 

 

Colleagues spoke up for me

I got through this ordeal with the tremendous support of my family, friends and colleagues, some of whom spoke up against the bully.

Without the fantastic support of my husband and GP, and access to wonderful counselling and mental health services, I doubt I would be sharing my story with you. 

‘I had to walk away from a well-paid job that I loved and take a lower-paid position in another organisation’

I wish I could stand proud and tall and say ‘here I am, you didn’t beat me’, but that would not be entirely true; I had to walk away from a well-paid job that I loved and take a lower-paid position in another organisation. I even chose a new field of work to limit any further contact with the bully in the future; I needed to heal and build my confidence back up.

There must be many others in my situation for whom this is not an option. I was lucky that I could afford to take a reduction in salary.

Attitudes compounded the problem

Bullying is personal. It is subjective, which makes it difficult to prove, and the individual being bullied may not have the strength or confidence to raise the matter and see it through.

My bully was seen as indispensable to the organisation. She was charming towards her peers and seniors, and her manner was viewed as necessary to run such a high-profile department.

The behaviours of others in viewing her this way only compounded the difficulties of having my voice heard and my concerns addressed.

‘At times I feel confident and ready to move on to another role, then I talk myself out of it’

Following this experience, I thought it would be easy to climb the career ladder again, but that was not the case. I was certainly not in the right frame of mind when applying for new posts, on one occasion filling up with tears mid-interview. This was another knock to my confidence. 

I have built up a comprehensive skill set throughout my career, including leadership, management and coaching skills. In my current role, I am not able to use these skills as much, which is frustrating and I worry about losing them.

At times I feel confident and ready to move on to another role, then I talk myself out of it. I don’t feel I am the happy-go-lucky person I once was. Although techniques such as mindfulness, neurolinguistic programming and self-coaching help, there is always that seed of self-doubt and I question if I could have done something differently to prevent the abuse.

Endemic bullying continues

One of the main themes identified in the Freedom to Speak Up Report, published in February 2015 following the inquiry into care failings at Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, was that endemic bullying and intimidation routinely prevented concerned employees from raising their voices against unethical behaviour.

Mid Staffs inquiry chair Sir Robert Francis QC, who authored the report, said ‘bullying in the NHS cannot be allowed to continue’. But it does. The NHS staff survey results for 2017, published in March last year, show that 24.3% of staff experienced harassment, bullying or abuse from staff in the previous 12 months.

The figure for this question is almost unchanged since the 2016 result of 24.2%, or even the 2015 result, at 24.9%. Have we learned nothing from the Mid Staffordshire inquiry?

Bullying can have severe consequences for an individual’s health and well-being. A bully erodes a person’s confidence and self-esteem, which can lead to anxiety, depression and stress, and the lack of self-worth experienced by the person being bullied can lead to thoughts of self-harm and suicide.

There was a brief period when I thought that maybe life wasn’t worth living. When I was asked about this by my GP and community psychiatrist nurse, I lied and said I hadn’t contemplated ending my life. I hid how I was truly feeling from my family and trusted few people.

Reflecting on this later, when I was in a healthier state of mind, I was shocked and appalled at how the bullying had affected me psychologically.

‘This was the NHS at its best. But what did it cost the health service to undo the damage caused by its own employees in the first place?’

I can’t thank enough those who stood by me and helped me through this traumatic time. A dear friend’s weekly calls and sympathetic ear really helped with the healing process, which included anti-anxiety medication, counselling, group sessions on dealing with the effects of anxiety and depression, and individual cognitive behaviour therapy.

This was the NHS at its best. But what did it cost the health service to undo the damage caused by its own employees in the first place?

No employee wants to work in an organisation where they are not valued, and where they fear intimidation, harassment and bullying. This leads to low staff morale, high sickness rates and high staff turnover.

The response of the employer to allegations of bullying varies, with some organisations even blaming the victim. In my case, the onus was on me to prove that the bullying had occurred.

New role supporting others

Three years on, I am in a happier place. I enjoy my new role and focus on seeing the best the NHS has to offer its patients and staff. I have recently been promoted, and although I am still not at the level I was previously, it’s a step in the right direction.

I joined the RCN and applied to become a steward, as I wanted to help staff address workplace issues and highlight them to employers. This month I start a new role as a Freedom to Speak up Champion.

‘I believe bullying should be raised and discussed, but I feel ashamed about what happened to me, even though I know it wasn’t my fault’

I don’t think I would have taken on either role had I not experienced difficulties myself, but I have a voice and I intend to use it. I want to be a good role model for others, especially those who have been bullied.

The support I received also made me want to give something back to my local community, and I now undertake voluntary work with a local charity, which has helped strengthened my personal resilience. 

Martin Luther King said, ‘we must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive’. Although I can neither forgive nor forget, mindfulness has taught me to be in the moment and appreciate what I have.

I still have flashbacks sometimes and anger about what happened to me, but I won’t let this consume me. I chose to remain working in the NHS because I believe in its founding principles and core values. I can only try and make things better for myself and those around me.

I believe wholeheartedly that the effects of bullying should be raised and discussed, but I feel ashamed about what happened to me, even though I know it wasn’t my fault.


The author of this article wishes to remain anonymous

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