The NHS has the tools to tackle workplace bullying

Progressive health service employers are taking a proactive stance on the root causes of poor behaviour, says Sue Covill

NHS staff face enormous challenges on a daily basis. Rising demand and continuing staff shortages inevitably increase the strain they are working under. Trying to deliver the standard of care that patients deserve, in a pressurised workplace, can lead to a lack of civility among staff, or in some cases to instances of bullying. This behaviour is unacceptable in any organisation – particularly one that has care and compassion at its heart.

It’s therefore reassuring that the NHS is now in a better position than ever to address this. It helps that we know the scale of the problem we are dealing with. The most recent NHS staff survey showed high percentages of staff reporting bullying, harassment or abuse from managers and other colleagues. 

There is also work going on across the health system to make the NHS the best place to work. This includes improvements to culture and leadership, and developing behaviours based on civility and respect. This work will be supported by the delivery of the full NHS People Plan. 

In 2016, the Social Partnership Forum (SPF) – which brings together NHS Employers, NHS trade unions, Health Education England, NHS England and NHS Improvement, and the Department of Health and Social Care – issued a call to action to tackle bullying in the NHS workplace. It called on employers, trade unions and senior leaders at an organisational, regional and national level to work in partnership to address the problem.

In its progress report on the call to action, published in July, the SPF said bullying continues to be a major problem for the health service, with a knock-on effect on morale and productivity, calling it “persistent and enduring”. But there is real comfort to be drawn from the fact there is so much great work already going on. For example, at Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust, a trust-wide policy covering dignity and respect at work was rolled out in 2015. The policy aims to create and sustain a just and learning culture and a working environment where there is mutual respect, tolerance and understanding, as well as a culture based on dignity and respect throughout the trust. 

It may also be that staff don’t feel comfortable or able to challenge poor behaviour, according to the SPF. Somerset Partnership NHS Foundation Trust launched a See Something, Say Something campaign as a way to address this, giving staff the tools and language to challenge poor behaviour and address low-level concerns. Since the project was implemented, the trust reports there has been a major reduction in recruitment and retention difficulties.

In the progress report, the SPF continues to call on employers and trade unions to work in partnership to develop a culture of civility, compassion and respect, so that the likelihood of poor behaviour, bullying and harassment is reduced and can be tackled quickly and effectively if it does arise. The SPF, through its website, signposts a wealth of resources to support this. It also encourages organisations to explore their NHS staff survey data and use more detailed surveys to identify areas where action to address poor behaviour is needed.

As part of the ambition of the NHS People Plan to make the NHS the best place to work, NHS Employers will join forces with Acas on 19 November to run a joint conference looking at some of the most pressing issues facing the workforce in the health and social care sector – including a session on tackling bullying and harassment. 

As an organisation, NHS Employers will also continue to offer support to employers through our work with the SPF and our newly developed Professionalism and Cultural Transformation toolkit, which aims to help staff to improve professionalism within their workplaces.

Sue Covill is director of development and employment at NHS Employers