Why the NHS can no longer afford to ignore workplace bullying

I have just read Roger Kline’s excellent article in the Guardian 16th August 2016 (link to article) regarding the prevalence of bullying in the NHS and how it should be tackled. He talks about addressing workplace bullying and workplace harassment in a proactive and holistic way which is something the Andrea Adams Consultancy have always advocated in over 20 years of working with organisations to address these detrimental behaviours. We have always said ‘workplace bullying is too costly to ignore, indeed it is one of our strap lines.

Kline raises some interesting issues and recounts the experience of one nurse whose manager bullied her. It was found following investigation he had been a bully but there was no disciplinary action because he didn’t ‘intend’ to bully her. This is just one example of the many we come across where organisations ‘excuse’ behaviour because it ‘wasn’t meant’. Lack of intention is not a mitigating factor for any perpetrator of bullying behaviour. You cannot undo the damage they have caused. Lack of intention might be considered in a disciplinary hearing when looking at an appropriate sanction under disciplinary processes, but it should not stop a disciplinary process from taking place. When disciplinary processes are not invoked and proportionate sanctions are not applied, then this breeds distrust in the organisation’s ability to deal with bullying at work. If there is no consequence for the perpetrator then the behaviour becomes condoned, it’s endorsed and it continues. Why in those circumstances would anyone speak out when they know that nothing is likely to be done and it is they, not the perpetrator who may suffer the consequences?

This is exactly the challenge that is being faced in organisations, and particularly in the NHS where the organisational response to bullying is inadequate. They fail to challenge behaviour at work when concerns are raised, because of who the alleged perpetrator is, because of a lack of understanding of workplace bullying and its impacts, or simply because it may take time to deal with it when achievement of targets is the main organisational driver.

Kline talks about the negative impact on patient care from research undertaken by Michael West. This has to be a strong business case for making Dignity at Work a priority in the NHS for its staff as well as patients. A change of culture is required and the introduction of the Freedom to Speak Up Guardians may go some way to improve trust as long as the right people are appointed to those roles and they execute them appropriately. But this in itself will not be enough. It will take the holistic approach as described in the article, with metrics applied to monitor the organisation’s approach to workplace bullying and workplace harassment and importantly to deal proportionately and robustly with it when it arises, whoever is the perpetrator. Until this is done, individuals will not have confidence in the organisation’s ability to deal with workplace bullying and workplace harassment. Targets of bullying will not speak out and the personal cost, the organisational cost and detriment to patient care will continue.

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