Over a quarter of NHS staff experienced bullying by a colleague in the last year, survey finds

27 Feb 2019 By Emily Burt

Experts advise ‘prevention better than cure’ as annual report reveals ‘worrying’ decline in staff wellbeing

Employers must focus on prevention rather than cure when tackling organisational cultures, experts have warned, as a new survey revealed more than a quarter of NHS staff experienced bullying from managers or colleagues in the last year.

The 2018 NHS Staff Survey, which included results from almost 500,000 staff across 230 NHS trusts, suggested bullying cultures were pervasive, and contained worrying projections about the health and wellbeing of workers in the sector.

Over the last 12 months, 25.5 per cent of respondents reported experiencing bullying, harassment or abuse from another member of staff, up from 24.4 per cent in 2017.

This included more than one in 10 respondents (13.2 per cent) who reported at least one incident of bullying or harassment by a manager, and nearly one in five (19.1 per cent) who reported at least one incident by another colleague.

NHS staff also reported an overall decline in health and wellbeing between 2017 and 2018, with less than a third (28.6 per cent) of staff reporting their organisation had taken positive action on health and wellbeing – a three percentage point decline on the previous year. 

These figures coincide with a nearly 3 per cent rise in the number of respondents who reported seeing an error, near miss or an incident that could have hurt a patient or service user, up to 27.8 per cent, up from 25 per cent in 2017. 

Rachel Suff, senior policy advisor at the CIPD, described the reports as “worrying”, warning there could be longer-term implications if negative cultures were not addressed. 

“If working cultures do not support equality, dignity and respect, this could have serious implications for an organisation, as well as people’s health and wellbeing,” she told People Management.

“People who experience bullying or harassment are more likely to be depressed and anxious, less satisfied with their work, and to want to leave their organisation.”

According to the survey, almost one in four (39.8 per cent) NHS staff reported feeling unwell as a result of work-related stress in the last year, marking the worst result in a five-year decline of mental wellbeing among staff.

The sector is also struggling with cultures of presenteeism, with more than half of respondents attending work despite not feeling well enough to perform their duties in the three months prior to the survey release. 

“Prevention is better than cure, and organisations should strive to develop a culture in which bullying is known to be unacceptable and where individuals are confident to speak up,” Suff said. 

“Alongside robust policies and line manager training, employers should promote the importance of respect between employees, so that people's behaviour reflects the right values. Senior leaders and line managers need to role model and champion these behaviours and set the tone so that the workforce feels secure and can get on with their work without worry or fear of recrimination should they raise any concerns.”

Responding yesterday to the findings, Baroness Dido Harding, chair of NHS Improvement, said: “Today’s results underline the need to change and improve the culture of the NHS to make sure every member of staff is supported to develop and thrive.” 

“A key part of the workforce implementation plan is looking at how we can make the NHS the best place to work for current and future staff and to improve our leadership capabilities at team, organisation and system levels.” 

The report follows a series of government reforms announced last week, including the implementation of a 24-hour helpline to help NHS staff cope with traumatic incidents at work, and the appointment of 'workforce wellbeing guardians' at every NHS organisation. The initiatives were published amid warnings of staff burnout.

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