Stand Firm

A major review has called for urgent action to tackle high levels of bullying and harassment in the NHS. Daloni Carlisle investigates

Do you wake up in the middle of the night and find it impossible to get back to sleep, dread going into work, avoid certain colleagues and find you are losing confidence, and thinking of giving up your job? The chances are that you are the target of bullying, and you are not alone. In August 2009, in his interim report on the well-being of NHS staff, NHS Health and Well-being Review, Dr Steven Boorman called for urgent action to tackle ‘ the deep rooted issues that are endemic in the NHS, such as a culture of long hours and high levels of bullying and harassment’. In a survey of 11,000 employees, carried out as part of Boorman’s review, 12 per cent of managers and team leaders, and 18 per cent of other staff, reported having experienced harassment at work.  ‘This is an issue that trusts need to tackle vigorously through training for managers, support for staff who are victims of bullying and harassment, and other means such as mediation services,’ said Dr Boorman. The annual staff survey, published by the Healthcare Commission, in April 2008, and completed by more than 155,000 NHS staff, found 12 per cent had experienced bullying or harassment by a colleague, and eight per cent felt they had been bullied or harassed by their manager. Only 49 per cent of respondents reported that their trusts took effective action in cases of bullying. In January this year an NHS manager was awarded £150,000 by Hywel Dda health board, after UNISON backed her claims of harassment. Nanette Bowen, an information manager at Prince Phillip hospital, Llanelli, Wales, claimed she was harassed over a three-year period, after the arrival of a new boss in 2000. Swansea County Court found Camarthenshire trust, now part of Hywel Dda health board, liable, and Mrs Bowen has left her job after 28 years at the hospital. ‘The NHS was my life,’ said Mrs Bowen, commenting on the award. ‘I have had to leave a job I loved and have been able to go out properly on three times in the past six years.’ ‘The trust failed to support me but hopefully my case will make other workers more likely to speak out,’ she added.


Karen O’Dowd, CSP senior negotiating officer, stresses that staff should take action as soon as they feel they are being bullied. ‘Don’t bury your head hoping it will go away. Nine times out of ten it doesn’t. And if you feel you’re being bullied you probably are.’ ‘We are seeing an increasing number of cases and bullying is something we take very seriously,’ she says. ‘We advise members to keep a diary of events, put down what has happened, what was said, and whether there were any witnesses. And involve your CSP steward.’ ‘In some cases an informal meeting with human resources can be enough to solve the problem. But if not the CSP steward will support the member through a formal complaint procedure,’ she says.


Rachael Pope, a physiotherapy clinical specialist in women’s health at Bridport Community hospital, Dorset, and a CSP steward, echoes the call for assertive action in cases of suspected bullying. In 2003 she set up an advisory service for two trusts in Dorset, as a result of her personal experience of bullying 10 years ago. ‘I was working as a physio at a small community hospital and a number of GPs who worked there were behaving quite negatively towards me,’ she says. ‘Then one of them asked the matron how he could get rid of me.’ She left the job but was later asked to testify at an industrial tribunal led by the RCN on behalf of a group of staff. The staff won their case but Pope found the whole experience traumatic. ‘It took me years to recover,’ she says. ‘I think there is a high tolerance of bad behaviour in the NHS,’ she adds. ‘An organisation can know that it has a problem, know it is costing financially and still not do anything about it.’ She believes all trusts should promote a culture of good behaviour where everyone knows what is expected of them. ‘If you have clear messages saying we expect our employees to be treated with respect it could have a big impact,’ she says. The CSP is building this approach into its work on bullying. Working with Care is a tool developed by the RCN in order to help teams improve their relationships.It has been systematically tested on the CSP’s safety reps group. ‘It went very well and we will be promoting it through our networks in the coming year,’ says Donna Payne, the CSP’s national health and safety officer. FL

Further information

Dealing with Bullying: A guide for physiotherapy students on clinical placement Stress at Work – Bullying Advice for members experiencing bullying (on an individual or collective basis) ERUS Advice Sheet 5 Search; bullying

Made to feel small

Miles,(not his real name) who is in his mid 20s, says that it has taken him nearly two years to regain his confidence after the bullying he experienced as a junior. ‘It was my first job as a rotational junior and there seemed to be a bullying culture in the whole department, led by a group of newly appointed band 6 physios. They had been given their first taste of authority,’ he says. Once he was told off in front of a room of people for not filling out paperwork properly. ‘I was left feeling 10 inches tall,’ he recalls Two years into the job he had a surgical rotation where the senior specialist had the reputation of ruling with a rod of iron. ‘Everyone was frightened of her. She constantly made belittling remarks and in seven months never said anything positive to me, ‘ he recalls. ‘It shattered my confidence. There is no excuse for that sort of behaviour and managers need to tackle it,’ he says. Miles received support from a CSP rep, left the job, and is now happy in a new job with supportive colleagues. He has lodged a complaint against the senior specialist who made his life a misery. ‘Doing something is better than doing nothing,’ he says.

Action stations

  • What to do if you suspect you are being bullied
  • Employers have a duty to protect your health, including your mental well-being.


  • Tell your safety rep or CSP steward of the situation
  • Keep a written record of incidents, including your own thoughts and feelings
  • If you feel able, confront the bully. Or consider writing to them explaining your objections to their behaviour and asking them to stop
  • If the bullying continues follow your employer’s complaints procedure with the backing of your steward or safety rep


  • Suffer in silence
  • Hope the situation will go away of its own accord
  • Let yourself be apathetic. Bullying can demoralise you very quickly and sap confidence

Bullying threatened career choice

Mary, (not her real name) is in her early 20s and first experienced bullying as a student on clinical placements. Once a senior physio told her to stop taking antibiotics that were making her sick. She was performing badly, the senior said, and needed to pass the placement. When Mary told her lecturer the senior denied having said anything of the sort. Mary qualified and got a job but the bullying did not stop. ‘I was not included in emails so was always the last to know what was happening,’ she says. ‘I was singled out for wearing a cardigan when I was cold, even though seniors were allowed to wear them when treating patients.’ She raised the issues with her manager but they were not resolved, He denied receiving her emails and did not visit her, as he had promised, she says. She eventually left the job. ‘I always wanted to be a physio, but my experiences as a student and qualified member of staff have made me doubt this. But she is looking for another physio job and hoping for a much better experience.
Daloni Carlisle

Number of subscribers: 0

Log in to comment and read comments that have been added