1 in 5 Doctors Say They Have Been Bullied in the Last Year

Peter Russell

November 01, 2018

Bullying in the medical profession may conjure up images of a junior doctor being shouted at by a senior, epitomised perhaps by James Robertson Justice's irascible surgeon Sir Lancelot Spratt in the 'Doctor' series of films of the 1950s and 60s.

Now, an investigation by the British Medical Association (BMA) has found that a culture of bullying is a reality for many doctors today, with 1 in 5 saying they have personally experienced it in the last year and 2 in 5 saying bullying and harassment were problems in their own workplace.

The 2-year study, Bullying and harassment: how to address it and create a supportive and inclusive culture , found that people who have been bullied said it destroyed their confidence and in some instances, caused serious harm to lives and careers.

'I Cried On the Way to Work'

One doctor told the project: 'Bullying and harassment occurs on a monthly basis where I work. It's so bad that I can't even begin to explain. I consider leaving medicine on a regular basis.' A former GP trainee said: 'I struggled to function, felt physically sick, emotionally broken. I used to cry on the way to work. Prayed that a truck would flatten my car.'

Sometimes problems stemmed from person-to-person relationships, the report found. Often, though, it reflected "pressures in the system, poor working environments, top-down 'command and control' leadership, and a culture that accepts such behaviour as the norm".

Dr Anthea Mowat, BMA representative body chair and BMA bullying and harassment project sponsor, said: "We know that other staff in the NHS are affected too – 1 in 4 according to the NHS staff surveys.

"As well as damaging staff, bullying also impacts on patients and the consequences for patient care and safety are serious. In workplaces where bullying is common, communication and teamwork suffer, and staff are afraid to raise legitimate concerns about patient care or safety."

The report defined bullying as "offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient". Bullying included physical and verbal aggression.

Asked whether there was a problem with bullying, undermining, or harassment in their principle place of work, 10% of UK doctors who were asked said 'often'; 29% said ‘sometimes’; and 6% did not know. However, most doctors (55%) said they had not encountered a problem.

Researchers asked doctors working in the UK who said there was or might be a problem with bullying, undermining, or harassment in their main place of work why they considered this to be the case. The three main reasons given were:

  • People were under pressure (65%)

  • It was 'difficult to challenge as behaviour comes from the top' (58%)

  • People who were bullied, undermined, or harassed were 'too afraid to speak' (48%)

These main reasons were echoed by UK medical students.

Changing the Culture

The report identified ending the silence surrounding workplace bullying as key to changing the culture. Healthcare workers should be encouraged to talk about behaviour and improve their understanding of what bullying and harassment looked like.

Compassionate leadership should be encouraged from the top down to discourage bullying behaviour, and there should be improvements in how formal complaints are handled in the NHS when events escalate.

A more supportive and inclusive culture should be created to help doctors and other health workers deal with increased workloads. "When people are tired, stressed or anxious, they will find it much harder to contain themselves, relationships are more likely to be fractious at times, and conflict, aggression, and thoughtless behaviour may happen," the report warned.

Unacceptable Behaviour

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: "Bullying in any form is completely unacceptable and we expect trusts to take robust action to ensure their staff are being treated with respect and professionalism.

"We are committed to reducing bullying rates in the NHS and are reviewing whether existing rules go far enough to make sure bullying is tackled in the workplace."


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