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FOCUS: Health workers open up about bullying

FOCUS: Health workers open up about bullying

Friday 17 September 2021

FOCUS: Health workers open up about bullying

Friday 17 September 2021


Two former health workers have opened up about the struggles they faced in getting help when they blew the whistle on bullying in their department, and the effects the trauma is still having on their wellbeing now.

Michael and Mary* both expressed frustration at the way their complaints had been dealt with and the fact their 'bully' was only moved from one part of the service to another.

They spoke to Express after a report published last week revealed that increasing numbers of health staff are taking time off due to anxiety, stress or depression amid "worrying low" workforce morale, and concerns that bullying in the workforce and harassment policies are still being ignored.

Such issues were further reinforced by the results of a staff survey leaked to Express, which showed a lack of confidence in managers and worries about not being listened to.

In the case of Michael, who worked within the operating theatres at the hospital, the bullying started when he was being given more responsibilities and put forward for more jobs.

“[My colleague] did not like it and it became personal, it was horrible,” he said. “He would say and do things to me, he was seen by other members of staff who support what I was saying." 

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Pictured: Michael worked within the operating theatres at the hospital.

Meanwhile, Mary, a nurse in mental health services, experienced bullying from a manager within the department.

Having moved to Jersey from the UK where she had worked for the NHS for several years, she said she noticed immediately that something was wrong. 

“It became clear from the start that... it was very much a toxic culture,” she said. “As it was Jersey, it was very much about who you knew, what you knew and what you knew about who."

She added: "There was a clear divide within the team. It was like being in a football team, we were against each other.”

Mary said her manager would swear and shout at people or sometimes simply ignore them. According to Mary, the leader would also treat "favourites" differently, not scrutinising their work, sick leave and adherence to processes as carefully as others. 

A "very slow" complaints process

Both Michael and Mary submitted complaints and were equally disappointed with the outcomes.

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Pictured: Michael and Mary were both disappointed with the outcome of their complaints.

Despite hoping for a swift resolution, Michael said he was asked to gather evidence for as long as a year before the Government would take any consideration of his complaint.

“For the Government to be pushing against bullying, it does take a long, long time and evidence before they can even decide whether to step in,” he said. “For the person being bullied, it’s really, really hard and it’s not pleasant.

“The whole process is very, very slow and it needs changing.”

Even after the complaint was taken forward, and despite others making similar complaints about the same individual, Michael said it took a long time for an outcome to be decided, and, when it eventually was, he was disappointed.

"They just moved him sideways"

“It did go through the complaints department of the hospital but, in my opinion, it was not dealt with properly,” he said. “He should have been fired from my point of view, but they just moved him sideways, and he still used to see me. Within the hospital, he would snidely pass comments - it was not a good place, or a good environment, to be in.

“I did point out what was happening in corridors when he would pass me and say something offensive, but that was not considered after the initial decision.

“Their guidelines are very difficult. When you are putting complaints against other members of staff, it’s really difficult to uphold them in any kind of way. I do not know how many people have been dismissed because of bullying.” 

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Pictured: Mary and Michael said they felt their complaints had not been properly investigated and acted upon.

Mary’s experience echoed Michael’s.

Her manager was also moved to another department. Despite this, Mary says she continued to be bullied by other employees - behaviour Mary believed was incited by her former senior.

"They did nothing" after whistleblowing alert

In addition, she said that when she and other employees used the established whistleblowing procedure to raise concerns that the Nursing and Midwifery Council’s Code of Conduct was not being followed by the manager and other members of the team, she felt the allegations were not investigated thoroughly enough.

She said neither her nor her colleagues were interviewed about why they had made their bullying complaints or used the whistleblowing procedure.

“If you report things to HR, they do not follow the Bullying and Harassment procedure,” she said. “HR has no teeth, they did nothing."

Mary said she believes some of the systemic culture issues are linked with struggles to recruit nursing staff.

“They really are not interested. They know [bullying] is a problem but they cannot do anything about it because they cannot recruit nurses, obviously they cannot get rid of anybody, but it does start at the top," she said.

“I had an exit interview and I said I was leaving because of bullying and harassment and the toxic culture and not being able to do my job properly because I did not have the right support."

"Jersey has knocked my confidence and my self-esteem"

Michael and Mary were both profoundly affected by their experiences.

Michael spent several months off work due to stress and reached out to a counsellor for help, as no support was offered by his department.

Two years ago, he suffered a cognitive stroke, and questions whether the stress he experienced contributed.

Mary, who recently left Jersey to return to the UK, said she feels like she is suffering from post-traumatic stress due to her experience.

"Even now, I feel that Jersey has knocked my confidence and my self-esteem,” she said. “It affected my mental health, not to the point that I need treatment, but it certainly feels it’s had a negative impact on me. I really worry about the people that are left behind.”

Process improvements

For Michael, ensuring complaints are dealt with in a more proactive and quicker way would be better for employees.

“Having an initial interview without having a year’s worth of evidence or documentation should be implemented, and then afterwards, it should be checked every month, every three months, so that [any further issues] can be identified in a much quicker way. 

“There are procedures to follow but in some way, there has to be, not quicker decisions, because obviously you will get people who make false accusations, but if four or five people complain about the same person, it should be taken very seriously and at quicker pace.” 

According to Mary, a “massive overhaul” is required. “It would need an outside consultant like you do in the UK when a trust is falling,” she said. “They need to bring in a team from another area to come in and get it back into some sort of standard.

“I feel things are escalated when they do not need to be, they could be dealt with on the floor, if people had management and leadership skills. You need a lot of senior staff to go and you need some clear guidelines about what is acceptable and what is not.” 

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Pictured: Bullying issues also affect patients who are left in depleted services.

The issue, she believes, does not only impact the welfare of the staff currently employed within the health department but also the safety of patients. 

“The service is depleted but the number of people wanting to use the service is not going anywhere. When I left, people were buckling at the knees because of the amount of work they had to do and senior managers do not seem to get that.”

If nothing is done, Mary says Jersey will experience more and more difficulties not only in retaining staff but also in recruiting new ones. 

The role of 'Team Jersey'

While she said that ‘Team Jersey’ - a 'culture change programme' which aimed to instil new corporate values in all employees and make them better at working together and feel proud of working for Government – was a good idea, it was not implemented properly and failed in its objectives.

“The actual philosophy and objective is brilliant if it was to happen," she said of the workshop-based programme, but lamented: "The only people who went [in my department] probably did not need to go, and those who needed to go - the senior managers and those who are bullying - didn’t."

Overall, she feels like the values Team Jersey was supposed to instil have not been disseminated "across the board" or built into daily thinking as they should be.

“It was just lip service.”

What is Government doing about bullying?

Members States Employment Board - the panel of politicians responsible for Government workers' pay and terms and conditions, chaired by the Chief Minister - has on several occasions affirmed its commitment to clamping down on bullying and harassment.

In March 2021, the Government released a follow-up report by HR Lounge, who were tasked with investigating whether the widespread bullying and harassment in the public sector first identified in 2017 - which only came to light after an Express investigation - had now been addressed.

The report identified that improvements had been made to processes, but that there was still more that needed to be done.

Responding, former Government CEO Charlie Parker reported at the time: "We have addressed historical issues of bullying by implementing new bullying and harassment and whistleblowing policies, an independent reporting service for employees to report concerns, and manager briefings.

"We know that we are on the right track with our investment in staff over the last two years through initiatives such as an enhanced employee induction, the Team Jersey programme, staff awards, new mentoring and shadowing opportunities, a women in leadership action group and new manager development programmes.

"We have also enhanced our staff wellbeing support through our employee assistance programme and by establishing mental health first aider network. We further strengthened our wellbeing support during the pandemic, recognising the needs of employees on the frontline, those who were redeployed as part of the COVID response and those working from home."

Last week's report on Government HR processes and culture by the Corporate Services Scrutiny Panel suggested that addressing such issues will have to be prioritised by Government leaders, particularly by the new CEO.

The Government is yet to respond to the Scrutiny report.

*Names changed to protect anonymity.

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