Tackling workplace bullying

Research shows that one in four NHS staff have experienced bullying, harassment or abuse at work. 

We speak to RCN steward Maggy Heaton about what can be done to change the culture of workplace bullying

Directors can be dismissed if they fail to tackle bullying they’re aware of but getting people to speak up in the first place can be the biggest challenge.

“Members tend to put up with bullying for a long time before speaking to their union,” says Maggy. “They don’t think there’ll be any consequence for the bully or they think they’ll be seen as a troublemaker and it’ll make the situation worse.

“We find that other members of staff who have witnessed bullying won’t speak up either. I tell people that if they want to make their working environment a healthy and productive one then they need to speak up.

I tell people that if they want to make their working environment a healthy and productive one then they need to speak up

“Often there’s a known culture of bullying in a particular area which can be common in health care and it makes it difficult, not only for people to speak up, but when investigating claims too. 

“Employers often use the staff survey to show that bullying isn’t a major problem. Not everyone completes the staff survey or feels comfortable raising concerns in that way so it makes it hard to see the scale of a problem.”

Partnership working

Sometimes the way employers handle cases of bullying doesn’t help, says Maggy: “Over the past few years, I’ve had multiple members of staff from the same area come to me about bullying. 

“We’ve raised bullying claims but the results keep coming back as no case to answer to. The best I could do was to get the member moved to a new department which doesn’t stop the bullying culture. I realised that I needed to try and tackle the problem differently so with the members’ consent, I spoke to the trust’s freedom to speak up guardian and asked them to look at the culture in that area. 

“They’re able to go in, watch what’s going on, write a report and make recommendations. Depending on what they find, it could help our case and hopefully it’ll lead to wider improvements.”

This type of partnership working is key to tackling a bullying culture says Maggy, who has teamed up with her trust’s HR department on a number of initiatives. Together they’ve produced joint training for managers and improved the way exit interviews are carried out so people can speak more freely about concerns.

I give the union perspective and explain how much damage bullying can do, not only to the individual but also to the working environment

Maggy says: “Once a month we put on a workshop for managers about bullying and harassment in the workplace. We explain what bullying is and what it isn’t.

“I give the union perspective and explain how much damage bullying can do, not only to the individual but also to the working environment. The training raises the RCN’s profile in my workplace too so more people know where they can come for support.

“Until recently, exit interviews at our trust were carried out by the person’s line manager. That wasn’t acceptable because sometimes the person’s line manager is the problem.

“Now exit interviews are done through an electronic survey and the results are fed back to union reps regularly so we can see if there are hot spots for us to concentrate on and we can try and address the issues in those areas.”

Nurse looks sad

Practical advice

Maggy knows it can be tough when a member comes to you with a bullying claim; cases sometimes take a long time to be resolved and it’s difficult for the member emotionally. 

So, what’s Maggy’s advice?

“You need to be really clear about what bullying is,” says Maggy. “Especially if someone is being performance managed as this can cause confusion. Check the documentation and the facts. If someone is being bullied, make sure they’re keeping a log of everything that happens.

“I give people a printed copy of the RCN’s example bullying diary which is available in the RCN guidance and online from the RCN reps hub. It asks the person to write down their feelings while everything is fresh in their mind and we use it as the case progresses.”

If a person is being badly bullied then their confidence will be low so it can be really difficult to take that bold step and confront someone

The RCN’s guidance also advises people to consider whether they would be able to confront the person, which in some cases can help.

Maggy says: “Sometimes the person doesn’t even realise that what they’re doing is bullying behaviour, perhaps because they’re under certain pressures themselves, and they’re mortified. 

“Of course, this doesn’t change the fact that bullying is unacceptable.

“If a person is being badly bullied then their confidence will be low so it can be really difficult for them to take that bold step and confront someone. As a steward, I can offer to support them at a meeting with a senior manager and I also recommend members attend courses run by my trust which help them have difficult conversations and say 'Do you realise how this is making me feel?'”

Seek help straight away

Maggy’s most important bit of advice is to encourage members to ask for help as soon as possible: “It’s soul-destroying to watch how upset members are, especially when they’ve left it so long to speak to someone. The earlier you ask for help, the better. For bullying to occur, there must be a bully and a victim. Standing up to bullying really early will help it to stop.”

Although this helps the member in question, Maggy acknowledges that this might not stop more widespread bullying. “That’s where partnership working comes in,” she says. “Think about how you can work with employers and other union reps to help create an environment where people can speak up.

“And it’s not just stewards who can help with bullying cases. Safety reps and learning reps should be involved too. Bullying can arise from other pressures and the environment. Ultimately this is about the wellbeing of staff and we need to think about how we can change and develop the workplace culture to stamp out bullying.”

Male member of nursing staff looks worried

Resources to support you

Download bullying and harassment guidance for reps or read the RCN’s guidance on bullying and harassment at work.

You can get useful advice on creating a workplace culture where bullying is the exception rather than the norm by looking at the dignity at work section of our Healthy Workplaces webpages.

The RCN’s resource Working with Care helps nursing staff examine their interactions with colleagues. If you’re using this tool in your workplace, the RCN Employment Relations Department would like to hear from you. Contact kim.sunley@rcn.org.uk.

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