Whittington staff left ‘broken’ and a wreck’ by hospital bullies, investigation reveals
Exclusive: Criticism of 'pugnacious' attitudes of managers and 'unresponsive leadership'
02 August, 2018 — By Tom Foot
A SIX-month investigation at the Whittington Hospital has accused senior managers and medical staff of “unacceptable” bullying.
An independent report commissioned by the NHS trust in Highgate said “terrified” hospital staff feared opening emails from bosses who “scream and shout” to get their way. The probe took evidence from more than 1,000 staff over 120 hours of one-to-one phone conversations. Eighty per cent of those responding were women.
The 72-page report says: “There are numerous examples of staff being fearful of opening emails, attending meetings and having one-to-one exchanges with some managers. Staff do not usually describe themselves as ‘broken’, ‘a wreck’ or ‘it destroyed me’ without good cause.”
The Whittington has pledged to shift towards a more “compassionate leadership” regime and to introduce a new “email etiquette”, among other measures. The NHS trust commissioned Professor Duncan Lewis, of Plymouth University – co-author of “Trouble at Work”, the largest-ever British study into workplace ill-treatment – to look at bullying and harassment.
It was one of the first moves made by Siobhan Harrington after she took over from Simon Pleydell as chief executive in November 2017. Bullying and harassment had featured highly in Whittington staff surveys in successive years. The Care Quality Commission – the health watchdog – had officially asked the NHS trust to address the problem.
THE report reveals the impact bullying had on staff, with one worker saying they were told by a manager: “If I say jump, you jump.”
Other testimonies included:
- “I am fearful every time an email from the leadership team in my department arrives in my inbox. I shake and tremble. I think: what will happen next and how am I going to manage this next encounter?”
- “I am made to feel an utter fool in front of her. She screams and shouts at me and bellows across the desk. I feel sick to my stomach.”
- “My stomach churns every time I see an email from the leadership team [departmental leaders]”, adding: “When I brought it up with her, she started threatening me.”
Several staff described their experiences of working alongside managers as “frightening” or even “terrifying”. One said: “I am too frightened to sit in an office alone with this matron.” Another said: “My manager terrifies me. I came into work when I was unwell. I went to work [because] I was too terrified to tell her that I wasn’t well.”
One described going to work as a “daily trauma” while another said they were “suicidal and off work for several months with stress and anxiety”. Others said: “I am just broken. They took away my confidence” and “I was a wreck. I was sobbing.”
Reports of alarming levels of bullying are a common feature of annual staff surveys at NHS hospitals, including the Royal Free and University College London. The context, which is not contained in the Whittington report, is that pressure in the NHS is intense due to successive years of real-time funding cuts, target-based funding and endless strategic reforms.
A report published yesterday (Wednesday) by the British Medical Association revealed how gaps in doctor rotas mean medical staff are “coming under considerable emotional and physical strain” because of “unmanageable workloads”.
The BMA said that fledgling staff forced into senior management roles are being “placed at increased risk of burnout and stress, doctors are being routinely failed by missing out on important training and career development opportunities, which has an obvious impact on morale and work satisfaction, undermining our ability to deliver high-quality care in the future”.
The Whittington inquiry found that staff bullying reports were “outside the executive” – the board running the hospital – but the professor’s report says: “There is some consensus [view] of the executive as ‘cosy’ and ‘collusive’, unwilling or unable to challenge themselves and others.”
It also reveals a “catalogue of grievances” that had been “poorly managed”, adding: “Several grievances have questionable processes attached to them, with some staff rightly questioning if processes have been correctly followed. “We heard countless examples of very inappropriate behaviour by senior staff, including senior medical staff, which must not have existed in isolation.”
Surgery and cancer care departments were found to be hot-spots for “unreasonable management behaviours”, followed by women’s health services. Working environments were said to be “tense”, with “management team meetings involving shouting and aggression”.
The report says the trust should work towards a “true partnership model with trade unions” and aim for a “less combative approach” in resolving disputes.
It criticises “pugnacious” attitudes of managers and “unresponsive leadership” that could nurture a culture of bullying. Some physical attacks were reported, including one staff member being “slapped across the face by another staff member”. The report notes that the Whittington was “traditionally seen as a friendly workplace” with a “family-friendly feel, but this was changing…”
The Whittington said it would respond by “developing new standards” and by clarifying manager roles, implementing a new “resolution process” and “setting out a new email etiquette”.
Its statement said: “We commissioned this independent review to investigate our concerns that previous actions had not had sufficient impact on staff reporting bullying and harassment. While the review shows that this is not endemic in our organisation, it has helped to identify how we can work together to make changes for the future.”
It added: “We will make improvements to our culture and systems so that these experiences of bullying and harassment are a thing of the past. Action is already underway and we will develop direct responses to the recommendations, engaging staff in considering the report and creating cultural change over the coming months.”
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