Bullying at work: we all know nursing is far from immune, but support is out there

Whether you’re being bullied, or witnessing it, the RCN’s Josephine Brady offers advice

Whether you’re being bullied, or witnessing it, the RCN’s Josephine Brady offers advice

Picture: Jim Varney

Many nurses, whether they work in the NHS or elsewhere, experience bullying in some form despite concerted efforts to stamp it out. The word 'bullying' may evoke playground antics, but the consequences are extremely serious.

Healthcare workers are more likely to experience bullying and harassment than those in other sectors. In the latest RCN employment survey, 39% of respondents said they had been bullied.

Consequences of bullying extend beyond staff to patient safety

Fewer than half of them had reported the problem, perhaps due to a lack of faith that anything meaningful would come of it. It hasn’t been unusual in the past for nurses to report unwarranted behaviour and see nothing change.

The RCN survey also suggests BME – black or minority ethnic – members of staff are more than twice as likely as others to experience some form of bullying.

While it is unpleasant for anyone affected, in a healthcare setting the toxic consequences extend to the quality of care patients receive. Research demonstrates the negative effect of bullying and harassment on patient safety.

Everyone agrees that bullying is bad, but how it manifests itself is less clear.

‘If you witness or experience something that causes concern it’s important to keep a record of what you’ve seen or heard’

The problem would be much more easily solved if there were an easy way to identify bullying or harassing behaviour. Examples include talking over someone incessantly, undermining someone or aggressive behaviour. A rule of thumb for workplace bullying is that it often involves a misuse of power or rank, and increasingly it can manifest on social media.

The power can be formal, such as that of a line manager, or informal such as a long-serving colleague who has built up a close network of peers. Bullying is always unwanted, unwarranted and detrimental to well-being.

If you are being bullied at work, or you are worried that someone you work with is being bullied, there are things you can do that will make a difference.

What to do if you feel bullied, or notice a colleague is being harassed

If you feel that you are being bullied, it can often be helpful to talk informally to friends, family, a trusted colleague or a workplace counsellor in the first instance to grasp what is happening to you and clarify the problem.

If you witness or experience something that causes concern it’s important to keep a record of what you’ve seen or heard – a template diary can be found in the RCN’s guide to bullying and harassment.

This could become very important in any formal complaint process.

Sometimes, and importantly only if you feel comfortable and that it is safe to do so, the best course of action is to discreetly discuss what you’ve seen with the perpetrator. They may be unaware how their behaviour has affected others, or how it has been perceived. It could be an honest mistake and a conversation might nip it in the bud.

Your employer should have a policy on workplace bullying 

Whether you yourself are being bullied or you have witnessed it, you should familiarise yourself with your employer’s policy on bullying and harassment. It’s important to follow any guidance to ensure no one is treated unfairly.

If appropriate you should report what you’ve seen to your line manager. Your employer has a duty of care to provide a safe and healthy working environment, which includes one where dignity and respect are promoted and bullying behaviours are tackled at the earliest opportunity. It’s your line manager’s responsibility to address the problem with the people involved.

But what if your line manager is the one who is responsible for the bullying behaviour? This is where having your employer’s policy to hand is essential. You may need to speak to a senior manager if the problem persists.

Most NHS organisations will have a nominated and trained member of staff you can talk to in confidence about bullying concerns, such as the Freedom to Speak Up Guardians in trusts in England.

No one should have to deal with this alone. If you ever need someone to talk to, you can call RCN Direct who will be able to help. 

Picture of RCN workforce lead Josephine Brady. In the first article for her new regular column she gives advice on how to respond to bullies.Josephine Brady is RCN associate director of employment relations 



Further support

Contact the National Guardian (Freedom to Speak Up Guardians) 

RCN Direct - 0345 772 6100

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