Bullying cultures allowed to fester
Being told to toughen up is not enough. This scourge of society must be recognised and confronted
Once upon a time bullying was a word confined to childhood. A term that conjured up images of the playground and telling yourself that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’. Children who were bullied were told to ignore it, be tougher. It also used to be that the image of the brusque, aggressive authority figure was well known and accepted, especially within healthcare, think Sir Lancelot Spratt in the ‘Doctor’ movies. Their colleagues were meant to ignore it, be tougher. But the truth is that bullying has never been confined to the playground; the real Sir Lancelot Spratts weren’t just pompous and bad-tempered, they were the accepted face of bullying in the workplace.
Today, as in the past, bullying and undermining behaviour permeates our society and, for those on the other end of it, turning the other cheek is easier said than done. The saving grace is that at least society is recognising this, shining a light on it, understanding the impact, and trying to do something about it. There is a large amount of evidence as to the prevalence and impact of bullying, undermining and harassment within healthcare, and there have been several high-profile campaigns encouraging healthcare professionals, representative groups and the NHS to work together to stamp out these damaging behaviours. Although these campaigns have touched nearly every profession within healthcare, and some have even had a token nod toward dentistry, as of yet, there has been nothing which grasps the nettle for dental professionals.
Are we to understand from this, therefore, that it isn’t a problem in dentistry? Evidence and anecdote would suggest otherwise, and in this edition you can read about the issue and the work that is being done to define and address it.
But I want to talk about something else, I want to talk about what it is really like to be on the other end of a bully. Because of the lingering association with childhood and childishness, we still tend to trivialise bullying and the damage that bullies do, treating the victims as if they are somehow slightly pathetic, and perhaps just not tough enough to cut it. Even with so much more understanding of the issues, adults who are bullied can be reluctant to report it because there remains a sense that it is somehow shameful, but there is nothing shameful or trivial about being a victim or about the consequences of bullying
Imagine feeling constantly mentally and emotionally attacked in your workplace. Imagine taking that home with you every night, lying awake, replaying what happened and suffering acute anxiety about what may happen the next day. Imagine becoming so riven with self-doubt, constantly questioning whether you are good enough, whether you can still do your job, whether you should just give up. Imagine it becoming so bad you need medication to cope. Perhaps you don’t need to imagine and have gone through some or all of this, because none of this is fictional.
Bullying is not trivial; it can wreak havoc on individuals, teams, and organisations. To have a team member suffering in this way can severely impact the team itself, rendering it ineffective with both the victim, and their colleagues who witness the bullying and undermining, afraid to speak up, afraid to tackle the bully. Imagine if that bully makes a mistake which could harm a patient, but the team around them is too scared to speak up and stop it.
Too often within the institutions and organisations associated with healthcare, bullying cultures have been allowed to fester. Bullies have been downplayed as being assertive or demanding and have escaped any consequences for their actions. To truly tackle it we must admit that it is there and this, at least, is now happening.
With widening acknowledgement, however, has come a more recent trend to teach resilience, both at school and in the workplace as a way to deal with bullying. From primary school, children are widely taught about how to be more resilient, and resilience training is routinely offered to adults who have faced, or are facing, difficulties at work. Resilience is an important tool for helping people to cope, but we have to be careful that it doesn’t become a way of making bullying the victim’s problem. Effectively, by saying, ‘be resilient’, we are once again telling victims of bullying to toughen up and ignore it. This may help the victims deal better with the situation, but it doesn’t challenge the bullying behaviour, nor does it change the culture which allows bullying and undermining to flourish.
To really change things we have to first acknowledge the problem and then say boldly that it is not ok, we will not accept it, and we will not give bullying and undermining a home, anywhere.