Intended for healthcare professionals

Careers

I’m being bullied by a colleague: what should I do?

BMJ 2017; 358 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.j4300 (Published 20 September 2017) Cite this as: BMJ 2017;358:j4300
  1. Kathy Oxtoby
  1. BMJ Careers
  1. kathyoxtoby{at}blueyonder.co.uk

Abstract

Kathy Oxtoby asks what action doctors should take when they are being bullied at work

“It is not acceptable to say nothing”

Vitty Bucknall, vice president and secretary of the British Orthopaedic Trainees Association, says, “Bullying is sustained negative behaviour over time and can be physical or psychological. Although physical abuse in the workplace is rare, emotional abuse is relatively common and often subtle—such as a look that makes you feel worthless or embarrassed in front of colleagues.

“If a doctor is being bullied they can’t function at their full potential. Bullying will erode self confidence, which is key to being successful in your career—particularly when you’re working in surgery, which requires a high level of confidence.

“Bullying results in doctors not enjoying a job they’ve worked hard to get. That lack of enjoyment can lead to deeper problems, such as work related anxiety or even clinical depression. I’ve seen doctors make excuses for missing certain clinical sessions because they are being bullied.

“It’s easier to suffer in silence and not cause a fuss. But the chances are that if you’re being bullied, someone else is too, and that there is a pattern to the bully’s behaviour.

“As a doctor on duty you need to speak up to protect others—it’s your responsibility. In the first instance speak directly to the person who is making you feel uncomfortable and explain the ways they are acting that are causing you concern. That’s easier said than done, and you might feel nervous approaching that person, but they may not realise what they are doing until you point out your experiences.

“If you feel unable to talk to the person, trainees should talk to their educational supervisor or programme director, who is likely to be discreet, empathetic, and able to offer solutions. However, if, say, your educational supervisor is the person doing the bullying you should go to your associate dean for advice. The only option that is not acceptable is to say nothing.

“The British Orthopaedic Trainees Association have introduced the Hammer It Out campaign, in collaboration with the British Orthopaedic Association and other royal colleges, to highlight that bullying can be a problem in medicine and that it’s everyone’s responsibility to identify it and fight it.”

“The most difficult step is talking about it”

Anthea Mowat, chair of the BMA’s representative body, says, “Bullying can sometimes be covert. It might involve physical or verbal abuse, either directly attacking or ridiculing you, making you feel humiliated by a colleague in front of patients and other colleagues. Or it could be being ignored or excluded from meetings and events.

“Bullying can be about making derogatory or offensive remarks about a person’s gender, disability, sexual orientation, or age. It can also involve constant criticism, excessive scrutiny, or sexualised comments.

“Some work environments have a culture of bullying as the norm. This is not acceptable.

“The most difficult step is talking to somebody about it and a lot of people are concerned about raising the problem because of fears about their career. But you should talk to somebody, such as a friend or another colleague. You can also talk to a BMA advisor—we are there to support you.

“The BMA is involved with a bullying and harassment project. We started by gathering information, looking at research, and finding out the current position on bullying and harassment issues. We are now looking at how to signpost people to appropriate advice and provide tools for people—both those that are bullied and also for bullies—to try and tackle this problem. We have also produced a document on bullying and harassment,1 giving advice for doctors.

“All NHS employers will have a bullying and harassment or dignity at work policy so make sure you read it and know who to raise issues with so problems can be tackled early.”

“Having a support network will be helpful”

“If you’re being intimidated, imposed upon, threatened, ignored, or shamed at work by someone or a group of staff for no just reason, then consider whether you’re being bullied,” says Irene Cormac, adviser for psychiatrist support service for the Royal College of Psychiatrists, and forensic psychiatrist at Nottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust.

“Bullies are often in a position of authority, but they can also be your peers, those junior to you, or other healthcare professionals. It can happen to anyone, particularly at times of increased vulnerability, which bullies can pick up on.

“Bullying can make you feel anxious, irritable, angry, depressed, and ashamed. It can affect your concentration, your family life, your career progression, and even lead to you quitting your job or leaving medicine altogether.

“It is crucial to face up to the situation and consider all the options, depending on the nature and severity of the bullying.

“Being assertive and communicating concerns may help to resolve certain types of bullying, such as being put under pressure to work extra shifts or clinics. Shining a light on bullying behaviours can sometimes help to stop them. Writing down your thoughts can help to clarify the main problems. A letter to the person bullying could make them reflect and change their behaviour. It is best to avoid e-communications, however, as it’s easy to make hasty remarks on email and regret them afterwards.

“Having a support network is helpful, it can include colleagues, friends, and family, as well as your union, medical defence organisation, and your medical royal college. For example, the Royal College of Psychiatrists provides a psychiatrists’ support service for their members and associates.”

References

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