One in five UK doctors bullied or abused last year, leading to ‘sick days’ and loss of confidence, study finds

  • ‘I used to cry on the way to work … prayed that a truck would flatten my car,’ complained a former trainee GP, who said they were ‘emotionally broken’
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 November, 2018, 7:23pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 November, 2018, 7:23pm

One in five NHS doctors were victims of bullying or harassment last year, a major survey has found.

The problem leads to doctors losing confidence and harms their careers and personal lives, leading them to take time off sick, the report by the British Medical Association revealed.

Its survey of 7,887 doctors of all grades across the UK found that 39 per cent believe bullying, harassment or undermining behaviour occurs in their main place of work and is a problem. Of those, 10 per cent said it was “often” a problem while 29 per cent said it happened “sometimes”.

A fifth said they had experienced such behaviour in the past year, but only 33 per cent said they or a colleague reported incidents to their employer.

“I struggled to function, felt physically sick, emotionally broken. I used to cry on the way to work. [I] prayed that a truck would flatten my car,” said a former trainee GP.

A consultant said: “Among senior doctors the culture is still very much that you ‘suck it up’. I am middle-aged, white, highly successful, not someone who many would consider to be ‘at risk’. But I’ve suffered much distress.”

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Another doctor said being bullied led to them having trouble sleeping and affected their clinical decision-making. A fourth said witnessing bullying and harassment every month led them to think regularly about quitting medicine.

Dr Anthea Mowat, chair of the BMA’s representative body, said: “Bullying in medicine can bring to mind images of a junior doctor being shouted at by a senior, or a surgeon angrily throwing instruments across the room. But … it can affect all kinds of doctor and medical student.”

It is disheartening to see that so many UK doctors suffer from bullying
Paul Wallace, NHS Employers

A quarter of other NHS staff – those who are not doctors – also suffer bullying, the survey found. Such behaviour can damage both the quality and safety of patient care because it undermines communication and teamwork and deters staff from raising concerns, Mowat said.

When asked why bullying, undermining and harassment happens in their place of work, 65 per cent said it was because “people are under pressures”, 58 per cent said it was difficult to challenge because “behaviour comes from the top” and 48 per cent said victims were too afraid to speak out about it.

A separate study last week estimated bullying costs the NHS £2.3 billion (US$2.9 billion) a year.

Paul Wallace, the director of employment relations and reward at NHS Employers, which represents hospital trusts, said: “It is disheartening to see that so many UK doctors suffer from bullying, undermining and harassment. 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.”

Donna Kinnair, the acting chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said: “The report is right to highlight staff shortages and systemic pressures as factors that contribute to a toxic, pressurised workplace where bullying and aggression can flourish. It is yet another consequence of the 41,000 nurse vacancies in England alone.”

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The Department of Health and Social Care said: “Bullying in any form is completely unacceptable and we expect trusts to take robust action to ensure their staff are being treated with respect and professionalism. We are committed to reducing bullying rates in the NHS and are reviewing whether existing rules go far enough to make sure bullying is tackled in the workplace.”