The content of this website is intended for healthcare professionals only

Bullying by colleagues affects one in five NHS staff

Most people too fearful to report they’ve experienced or witnessed bullying

Louise Prime

Tuesday, 02 July 2013

One in five people working in the NHS has been bullied by colleagues, with managers being the worst perpetrators, shows UK research. Authors of the study, published online today on BMJ Open, said nearly half of staff questioned reported witnessing bullying in the previous six months.

Researchers from Durham and Newcastle-upon-Tyne asked random samples of NHS staff – who worked at seven different secondary care, primary care, and mental health NHS trusts in north-east of England – about their experience of bullying at work; 2950 responded, giving a response rate of 46%. Of these, 43 were interviewed in greater depth.

The researchers assessed the prevalence of bullying among respondents using the revised Negative Acts Questionnaire (NAQ-R), and its impact using indicators of psychological distress (General Health Questionnaire, GHQ-12), intentions to leave work, job satisfaction and self-reported sickness absence. They also examined barriers to reporting bullying, and sources of bullying.

Overall, almost a fifth (19.9%) of respondents said they had been bullied during the previous six months, and 79 (2.7%) that this happened several times a week or almost daily. More than half (51%) of bullied people said the bullying had been done by their managers, and 31% by their peers; 18% blamed ‘workplace culture’.

The highest rates of bullying were reported by medical or dental staff (23.0% ‘to some degree’ and 3.0% ‘daily/weekly’) and the lowest by midwives (11.0% ‘to some degree’ and none ‘daily/weekly’).

Men, and people with disabilities, were particularly likely to report being bullied.

More than two-fifths (43%) of respondents said they had witnessed bullying in the previous six months – and one in 20 (5%) said they saw this daily.

Despite the high prevalence of bullying, and the fact that it was associated with psychological distress, only low proportions (between 2.7% and 14.3%, depending on the behaviour) reported it to someone in authority. The most common reasons cited for this included not thinking anything would be done even if they did, or that it might even make matters worse, and not wanting to be seen as a troublemaker.

The authors said: “Workplace bullying is a significant but underreported problem in the NHS. Many staff have directly experienced or witnessed bullying between staff members … Exposure to bullying as a target or witness was associated with negative outcomes: poorer psychological health, lower job satisfaction and increased intentions to leave work.”

They concluded: “Removing these barriers [to reporting] and evaluating interventions to reduce negative behaviours in the workplace are important avenues for investment in the well-being of the healthcare workforce.”

Registered in England and Wales. Reg No. 2530185. c/o Wilmington plc, 5th Floor, 10 Whitechapel High Street, London E1 8QS. Reg No. 30158470