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When you’re working hard caring for others, the last thing you expect is to be bullied, especially by your colleagues. But the statistics reveal a worrying picture. 
1 in 10 people experience workplace bullying in the UK, but within the NHS, this figure is nearly double – and that’s only the staff who report it. 
We spoke with RCN Steward Leonore Newson about the ways the RCN can support you at work, from resolving bullying behaviours through to raising a grievance. 

Bullying isn’t always obvious; it’s usually incredibly subtle

What is bullying?  

Bullying takes many forms which can make it difficult to know when you’re being subjected to it. “Bullying isn’t always obvious; it’s usually incredibly subtle,” advises Leonore.  

It can happen when you’re face-to-face with someone, via email or over the phone. It might be a one-off experience or happen frequently. 

Examples include:

  • humiliating or undermining someone – either in private or in front of others
  • ongoing and unwarranted criticism
  • being excluded and ignoring someone’s contribution
  • changing work responsibilities, deadlines or work guidelines without warning
  • colleagues being offered career development opportunities or training that you’re denied
  • shouting or insulting behaviour
  • spreading rumours or cyber bullying via social networking channels.

Read next: Microaggressions – calling out racism in the workplace 

If you’re questioning whether your experiences are classed as bullying, Leonore’s advice is to go with your gut-feeling. “If you’re feeling hurt or aggrieved by something someone has said or done, and it doesn’t feel right for you – it probably isn’t,” she says. 

5 ways to take action  

The most recent NHS staff survey showed that many staff who face bullying at work feel reluctant to report it. 

Leonore urges those nursing staff to seek support: “You’re not alone and if you don’t take that first step, nothing will change.”

Here’s Leonore’s advice on how you can take those first steps.

  1. Consider talking to the bully 
    Explain what’s been happening and how it’s made you feel. Their behaviour might not be deliberate. These informal conversations can be so effective, especially in the early stages. It can stop the problem escalating any further. 

  2. Seek support 
    If you don’t feel comfortable starting this conversation alone, ask your manager for support or contact with your local RCN rep. When I experienced bullying at work, I was taken more seriously, and the matter was resolved much faster once an RCN rep accompanied me to a meeting with my manager.
    Try to be open about your experiences by speaking to family, friends and colleagues too. As a member, you can also access our RCN counselling service for free

  3. Keep a log or bullying diary 
    Keeping track of any incidents you experience is really important. It provides vital evidence if you wish to make a formal complaint. You can use our interactive bullying and harassment diary

  4. Think about what outcome you’d like 
    Some people simply want to be treated fairly or for the bully to be made aware of their behaviour, while others want a formal apology.

  5. Get to know your policies 
    I always advise members who want to raise a concern to familiarise themselves with their organisation’s policy on bullying. Remember, these policies exist to protect you.

How do we prevent bullying?

The 2023 NHS staff survey showed signs of hope, with workplace bullying at a 5-year low. But with only 51.86% of staff feeling empowered to raise incidents, more needs to be done. 

Without individuals changing their attitude, this culture of bullying within nursing will just continue

Leonore, who has been a nurse for 50 years, believes it’s us as individuals who have the power to prevent workplace bullying: “Without individuals changing their attitude, this culture of bullying within nursing will just continue.”   

How can you help?

Show up.
If you’ve noticed another colleague subjected to bullying, don’t be a silent witness. Acknowledging their experiences and offering your support can be very powerful.

Include everyone.
“Many of the bullying cases I’ve dealt with begin with staff members excluding a colleague,” says Leonore.

Be an ally.
Anyone can be the target of bullying but those with protected characteristics are more likely to experience harassment in the workplace.

Think about your own behaviour.
“Even small bullying behaviours can make working life feel pretty miserable,” reflects Leonore.

Sam’s story

We spoke to Sam*, a clinical nurse specialist from London, who raised a grievance against a senior consultant. She says, “In hindsight, I wish I'd spoken to the RCN at the very start”.

Sam first raised concerns when a senior consultant refused to see a patient Sam was worried about. “What I asked of him wasn’t unusual, any consultant would have helped,” says Sam.

His micro behaviours made me feel like I didn’t have a voice

Her organisation took their time launching investigations and the case was closed due to a lack of timely evidence. After that, the consultant’s behaviour continued. He undermined her in front of staff and refused to see her patients – even skipping their beds on his ward rounds. “His micro behaviours made me feel like I didn’t have a voice,” says Sam.

With the support of the RCN and her family, Sam went on to raise a formal grievance. “Once the RCN got involved, the whole process felt so much more structured and I felt like I had someone on my side,” she says.

Every concern raised is a step closer to altering the culture in the NHS

Eventually, the trust made various recommendations, including that the consultant apologise to Sam. The apology never came, and the consultant obstructed those recommendations being put into action. Sam appealed and sought disciplinary action against the consultant and is currently awaiting a final hearing to determine next steps.

Despite it being a challenging few years, Sam doesn’t regret raising her concerns. If you feel unsure about reporting bullying, Sam says to persevere and not to play down your experiences: “Employers have a responsibility to address our concerns. Every concern raised is a step closer to altering the culture in the NHS, no matter how senior or intimidating the person is.”

*The member's name has been changed

Could you be a bully?

Working in under-staffed, under-funded and highly pressured environments means some people will be engaging in bullying behaviour without being aware of it.

Reflect on your own micro behaviours and if you’ve made a mistake, “acknowledge it and make an apology,” encourages Leonore.

And if a co-worker speaks to you informally to discuss your behaviour towards them, take time to listen to what they say to you and make every effort to resolve the issue informally.

What are your employer’s responsibilities? 

Employers are responsible for preventing bullying and harassment and should: 

  • have a written policy on dealing with bullying and harassment at work and communicate this to staff 
  • give victims a choice whether they wish to deal with the matter informally or formally 
  • if bullying is proven, take disciplinary action against the perpetrator as appropriate 
  • encourage staff to report incidents to the police where appropriate.

If you raise a concern with your manager about a bullying incident which isn’t followed up or is being dealt with ineffectively, we’ll help you take action and offer guidance and advice too.


Words by Claire McKinson

Further information

Experiencing or being accused of workplace bullying can be very stressful. If you need to speak to someone, you can reach out to our counselling service.
You can also contact our advice team who can put you in touch with your local RCN rep. 

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