It has been described by experts as an ‘epidemic’ that is rampant in the NHS today. Figures obtained by Vision News from the NHS 2018 staff survey (the latest data available) reports that, of half a million NHS workers, across 230 NHS Trusts who responded, over the previous 12 months 25.5 percent reported experiencing bullying, harassment or abuse from another member of staff. That is 127,500 reports of Bullying in the NHS in one year. This included 13.2 percent of respondents reporting at least one incident of bullying or harassment by a manager, and nearly one in five who reported at least one incident by another colleague.
National Bullying Helpline co-founder, Christine Pratt, says on their website “The National Bullying Helpline speaks out regularly, publicly, about the disturbingly high level of NHS employee calls to the helpline. In some cases callers have been known to ask ‘Is that the NHS Bullying Helpline?’. For us, where we have just taken 8 or 10 NHS helpline calls in a row, it feels like it. Up to 80% of ‘work-related’ calls to The National Bullying Helpline are from public sector employees – predominantly NHS staff.”
The NHS in England has been aware of excessively high levels of bullying in its midst for years. They regularly survey their staff with anonymous questionnaires both at a national and local level providing a wealth of data showing the types of bully, the type of bullying they’re doing and the prevalence of it. Yet the figures still show, despite all of this data they have failed to reduce instances of it in any real measure. Despite this having huge consequences for the organisation as it leads to huge amounts of sick days taken due to stress, as well as being a factor in the high turnover of staff. Figures from NHS Digital reveal that NHS staff are taking more days off sick than ever before. In England, NHS staff took 17,730,992 sickness absence days between March 2018 and March 2019 – a rise of 526,090 on the previous year. Although these are not all attributed to Stress from bullying the number one reason for sick-days in the NHS is Mental health problems such as stress, depression or anxiety.
Some of the steps NHS Trusts have taken to tackle bullying is to employ a ‘Freedom to Speak-Up Guardian’ following the 2015 Report into Whilst-blowing . Fair Treatment at Work Facilitators designed to provide confidential and supportive ‘listening’ and ‘signposting’ services to staff who are being bullied or harassed at work. Equality & Diversity Leads employed to give advice on equality, diversity and inclusion issues. As well as a number of policies by HR under the title ‘Dignity at Work’.Yet, despite all of these officers, facilitators and HR personnel they have failed to grasp the problem.
One NHS worker in a large South East Trust who has been the victim of repeated bullying over a long period by a senior manager told us “It’s a joke, they have all these policies and rules and are always virtue-signalling about combatting discrimination, protecting the workforce and not standing for bullying in the workplace, yet when I reported the systematic bullying I was receiving the entire organisation turned it’s back. They treated me like I was the problem, they provided no support, no apology, and no assurances that it wouldn’t happen again. Worst of all the senior manager who was bullying me was not disciplined in any way, even after I discovered she’d been reported previously for bullying another member of her department, a disabled man, there was nothing done. As there is no deterrent for bullies like her, they are emboldened, free to go on doing what they’re doing. The whole attitude of the HR department and the Trust board is ‘defend and deny’. Anywhere else she’d have been sacked for ‘gross misconduct’ but in the NHS, bullying goes on all the time, it’s almost encouraged.” [sic]
Another NHS worker, with a disability, who became the object of repeated bullying by her work colleagues told us how she became increasingly desperate to stop the bullying and so went to each of the three different departments who claim to tackle bullying as one of their core roles only to be told by each and every one that they could not help her. Firstly to the Human Resources department who behaved like she was the problem and engaged in victim-blaming at every meeting. The victim; Sarah (Not her real name) then approached the ‘Freedom to Speak Up’ Guardian who said that they were only interested in incidents related to patient safety and that, due to it being in a clerical department away from any patients, it wasn’t their concern. Increasingly desperate, Sarah finally approached the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion officer, who, admitted that, despited the bullying involving her disability, he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) help her and referred her back to HR. “in reality, for the Equality officer to be at all interested you have to be Black, Muslim or LGBTQ, and, as I’m none of these things, they couldn’t have cared less.” Sarah told us.
But the shocking impact of institutionalised bullying at the NHS isn’t just limited to the staff, it has a huge financial impact on the tax payer too. The Guardian newspaper (ironically the journal most read by NHS staff) carried out what they claim to be the first-ever comprehensive assessment of the financial cost to the health service of bullying and harassment. The Guardian estimate that, if just 15% of those reporting bullying leave their job that would mean a loss of over 42,500 staff with a calculated cost of replacing them of £231m
The Guardian goes on to say “We calculate the combined financial cost of these factors is a staggering £2.281bn a year. The biggest financial impact is from sickness presenteeism due to bullying, costing £604.4m a year. This is the productivity lost when staff come to work while being bullied.” [sic]
It is an organisational culture within the NHS that allows bullying to be so common and so very damaging. It has a huge cost to both the staff, in terms of their mental health and quality of life, the patient via staff-shortages, continuity of care and safety, as staff working under such conditions are more likely to make mistakes, and the taxpayer, to the tune of £2 billion a year.
This constitutes a major health crisis within the NHS, and one the NHS need to treat with the upmost urgency.