One in five doctors has faced bullying at work in the past year, BMA study reveals

One in five doctors say they have personally experienced bullying or harassment at work in the past year - and twice as many say it is a problem in their workplace, according to a BMA study.

GP trainees quoted in the study say they were reduced to tears by bullying from senior staff, with one reporting feeling 'physically sick' and 'emotionally broken'.

The report - which sets out proposals to tackle bullying and harassment - highlights chronic pressure on the medical profession as a major factor behind the problem. ‘In recent years, doctors at all levels and in all branches of practice are reporting increasing workloads, stress and detrimental impacts on their own wellbeing and relationships,' it says.

‘When people are tired, stressed or anxious, they will find it much harder to contain themselves, relationships are more likely to be fractious at times, and conflict, aggression, and thoughtless behaviour may happen.’

Speaking out

Workload pressure is identified by 65% of doctors as a major factor behind bullying and harassment, the two-year study found. Meanwhile, 58% said the ‘top-down’ nature of bullying made it difficult to challenge.

Half of doctors cited a system-wide reluctance among both victims (48%) and witnesses (46%) to report bullying as a factor that helped to perpetuate the problem. Among medical students, 60% thought that those experiencing harassment were ‘too afraid to speak’.

The report says: ‘Individuals who have been bullied or harassed are often targeted because they are isolated or in a weak position. However, we have also heard from doctors who never thought bullying or harassment would happen to them. They felt confident and convinced they would never tolerate it. But once they were on the receiving end, they lost confidence, becoming fearful and anxious. Some even felt ashamed, making it difficult to say anything to anyone.’

One former GP trainee said: ‘The daily beratings increased in severity to the point where I’d break down and cry. He asked me three times: "Do you think I am bullying you?" I felt pressured, I said: "No".’

Another former GP trainee described feeling ‘physically sick’ and ‘emotionally broken’ as a result of workplace bullying, adding: ‘I used to cry on the way to work [and] prayed that a truck would flatten my car.’

Culture change

A third doctor said ‘I consider leaving medicine on a regular basis’ because of bullying and harassment that occurs ‘on a monthly basis’.

BMA bullying and harassment project sponsor Dr Anthea Mowat said: ‘The experiences we have heard through the BMA’s bullying and harassment project show it can affect all kinds of doctor and medical student.

‘It is not just an issue about individual relationships. It also reflects pressures in the system, poor working environments, top-down ‘command and control’ leadership, and a culture that accepts such behaviour as the norm.’

RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard said: ‘Any medical professional should feel safe and supported when they go into work, from the moment they start training right through to retirement.

‘If there are ever any issues in the workplace, however, there should be a clear protocol in place where staff can report any problems and be reassured that something will be done to resolve them.’

'Unacceptable'

The BMA report makes three recommendations: ‘Ending the silence’, ‘Improving the resolution of problems’ and ‘creating a more supportive and inclusive culture’.

‘Action is needed across all three areas,’ it concludes. ‘For example, encouraging individuals to speak up and report bullying and harassment will not be effective if complaints are not taken seriously when people do.’

Paul Wallace, director of employment relations and reward at NHS Employers, said: ‘It is disheartening to see that so many UK doctors suffer from bullying, undermining and harassment. This kind of behaviour in the NHS or any workplace is completely unacceptable, and we will continue to work with employers to make sure doctors feel supported to speak up, if they or their colleagues face mistreatment at work.

‘Our hardworking colleagues do great work under extreme pressure, and it is understandable that it may affect their mood, but it is not fair that this pressure should be compounded by bad behaviour. It is paramount that all NHS organisations, national and local, address and reduce bullying and create a supportive environment for doctors and all staff.’

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