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Workplace bullying in health and social care: bad for staff, worse for the people they serve

Roger Kline, 22 November 2012

Among the reasons given (or excuses made) for nurses, broadcasters and others not raising concerns about Jimmy Savile’s behaviour was that they were afraid of the consequences. For themselves, obviously, not for the children. The fear of bullying in the workplace is alive and well.

In this Anti-Bullying Week, it is worth remembering that bullying in caring professions damages the work staff do as well as the staff themselves. When people feel unable to raise concerns because of their fear of the consequences, all talk of a "learning organisation" goes out of the window, with mistakes covered up rather than acknowledged.

Teachers, nurses and care staff are the most likely occupational groups to report workplace bullying. While that might (or might not) reflect their greater expectation that reporting it will be effective, it also shows that the problem persists. Indeed, there is evidence that it is rampant and getting worse.

Earlier this year the public service workers union Unison reported the results of a survey of 6,000 members indicating that more than 30% had been bullied over the previous six months, with a further 30% saying they had witnessed bullying during the same period.

The Unison survey suggested spending cuts had made the problem worse since its previous survey in 2009, the year in which Sir Ian Kennedy, chair of the Healthcare Commission (since merged into the Care Quality Commission), warned that a "corrosive" bullying culture was “permeating the delivery of care” in the NHS.

My professional experience suggests the problem is just as bad in social care. I recently represented a social worker who made a complaint about bullying by a manager, whose colleagues would not give evidence, despite privately supporting his claims, because of fear of what would happen to them as a result.

The Health and Safety Executive confirm bullying is bad for staff health and is a major cause of stress in the workplace. But the effects on those who rely on those staff can be even worse. The Mid Staffordshire Hospitals NHS Trust public inquiry into hundreds of unnecessary deaths of patients there heard repeated evidence of systematic bullying not just in that hospital but elsewhere in the NHS.

As with Savile's abuse, the failings in Mid Staffs persisted over a long period.  Would that have happened in a culture in which staff felt able to report their concerns?

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