Sexual harassment in the workplace has received significant attention over the past number of years and rightfully so. Hopefully we all know that sexual harassment in any form, and in any setting, is completely unacceptable. However, a 2014 study into workplace conduct found that there was a form of negative behaviour occurring much more commonly in the healthcare environment than sexual harassment, and that is workplace bullying. Bullying is so common that this study concluded that chances are most healthcare workers have been bullied at some point in time in their careers – and that many experience bullying on a regular or ongoing basis.
Sexually harassment is illegal and is reasonably easy to identify. However, many forms of bullying are not technically against the law, and are not as easy to recognize. Bullying is defined as “generalized psychological harassment” and can come in many forms. It can be very overt, such as in physical intimidation or verbal threats. I remember a fellow RT telling me a while back that she was body-slammed during a code by another healthcare worker in an attempt to get her to move out of the way. That type of obvious abuse has fortunately been reduced (although not completely eliminated) by the adoption of workplace Zero Tolerance policies. However, much of the bullying that still takes place in the healthcare work environment is more subtle and covert – such as belittling a co-worker (or their profession) in front of others or withholding information that a colleague needs in order to do their job effectively.
Bullying is so common in healthcare that in some respects it is perceived to be part of the (still) hierarchical culture. Employers and managers sometimes fail to take workplace bully seriously, and most of us have been told at one time or another to “stop being so thin-skinned” or to « work it out between yourselves ». Larger professions will sometimes gang up on smaller professions, and long-time staff members have been known to terrorize the newcomers to their own profession (we have all heard the expression about healthcare workers “eating their young”). Workplace bullying can have far-reaching consequences for employees in terms of lowered morale, lost productivity and increased burnout. It can significantly exacerbate the stress of an already stressful and demanding environment and, in doing so, have a potentially disastrous impact on the patients we care for.
Like many things, the first step towards reducing workplace bullying is to acknowledge the role we might play in perpetuating it – either by displaying bullying behaviours, letting ourselves be bullied or by silently standing by while it happens to others. We can no longer accept being told “that is just how that person is” or that “this is just what it’s like working in a high stress environment”. We need to hold ourselves and all our team members accountable for modeling appropriate workplace interactions, and report to the appropriate entity when that doesn’t happen.