Bullying in the workplace can cause significant harm to a person’s physical, emotional and mental wellbeing.
Nurses and midwives work in challenging, fast-paced and stressful settings that often create a pressure cooker environment which can trigger bullying behaviour.
Anyone is at risk so it’s important for nurses and midwives to equip themselves with the right tools and information to be able to manage and seek support if they experience workplace bullying.
“We all need to take this seriously, this should not happen to you at work, nobody should be bullied at work, and get support sooner rather than later”, advises Nurse & Midwife Support’s Consultant and Stakeholder Engagement Manager Mark Aitken.
Common types of bullying behaviours include aggression, teasing or practical jokes, putting pressure on someone to behave inappropriately, exclusion from work-related events, belittling comments and unreasonable work demands.
Bullying can be extremely harmful and have a negative effect on a person’s health and wellbeing, as well as impact workplace culture and productivity.
“It might be experienced by people as heightened stress,” Mr Aitken says.
“It might then lead to anxiety or fear around interacting with the person who is bullying them. Sometimes the person experiences low-mood and sometimes that can lead to depression. At its worst, people say this [the bullying] is just too difficult for me to bear and suicide is my only course of action.”
Mr Aitken highlights that a legal definition of bullying exists within the Fair Work Act 2009 that states bullying occurs when a person or group of people repeatedly behave unreasonably towards a worker or group of workers, and that the behaviour creates a risk to the person’s health and safety.
It’s not always cut and dry he concedes, suggesting it’s important to acknowledge just because someone doesn’t meet the legal criteria for being bullied doesn’t mean that they don’t believe they are.
“Someone’s perception of being bullied is their reality,” he explains.
“When people phone our service and say to us ‘I’m being bullied at work’ then we ask them to describe what’s happening and how they feel as a response of what’s happening.
“Through the process of hearing their story and working with them, we can connect them to the legal definition and workplace policies and procedures on bullying and perhaps say ‘what you’re describing to us is not consistent with the legal definition but you still feel bullied’. What you’re probably experiencing here is poor behaviour in the workplace, workplace incivility that is causing some distress, so however you’re feeling in relation to this are your feelings and that’s how you’re experiencing it and we will support you.”
A registered nurse, Mr Aitken accepts that the stressful nature of nursing and midwifery can often lead to workplace conflict.
“If you put people under pressure and under stress, and that is prolonged and consistent, then people can potentially act in a way that they wouldn’t usually act or a reasonable person wouldn’t act because they don’t feel that they can interact in any other way,” he says.
“I think sometimes the nature of our [nursing] work being high-stress, fast-paced, unpredictable and with high workloads can create a cultural environment where people almost find themselves in a pressure cooker and they react in a way that might be seen as bullying behaviour or might be indeed consistent with the legal definition of bullying.”
The underlying reasons behind bullying invariably trace back to a power dynamic, he adds.
“Bullying has a big power element attached to it so when people have power and they exercise that power in a way that is not beneficial to other people, then that can translate to bullying or perception of bullying,” he says.
“Sometimes it’s related to the pressure cooker nature of the work people find themselves in and that can cause people to become bullies. Sometimes it is personality driven; some people have personality types where they actually get elated or get their kicks out of bullying or having power over another person. And some people have personality disorders that lead them to narcissistic type behaviours that relate to and translate into bullying.”
On the flipside, Mr Aitken stresses some workers might think they are being bullied when they are in fact being performance managed.
“Sometimes people have engaged in poor work practice or they’ve indeed been rude to a patient they’re caring for,” he explains.
“That then goes to the manager as feedback or a complaint. The manager is required to meet with the nurse/midwife and hear their side of the story. What sometimes happens is because the person is being called out themselves for their poor behaviour or misconduct towards somebody they’re caring for, they will say to the manager: ‘You’re bullying me’ to deflect from the investigation of the complaint. I think it’s a really important point because performance management is not actually bullying, but for some people being performance managed, they have the perception that they’re being bullied.”
Importantly, Mr Aitken says calling out bullying in the workplace is often easier said than done, with the common power imbalance element meaning some people might not be confident enough to address it, especially if the person bullying them is their direct manager.
“What we say to people is don’t put yourself in a dangerous situation if you’re experiencing bullying. Certainly call out the behaviour if it is safe for you to do so. If not, say to the person ‘I’m sorry I’m not prepared to have you stand here and speak to me this way, I’m going to end this conversation now and I’m going to talk to somebody about how I need to deal with this situation’. That can be a non-threatening circuit breaker in relation to what’s happening.”
If nurses and midwives feel like they are experiencing bullying, Mr Aitken encourages them to read their organisation’s policy and procedure on prevention of bullying and harassment and understand the workplace’s organisational values and grievance and disciplinary policy and procedures.
He also advises nurses and midwives to read the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia’s (NMBA) Codes of Conduct that describe the responsibility all nurses and midwives have in relation to the prevention of bullying and harassment.
The codes state nurses and midwives must never engage in, ignore or excuse bullying; need to recognise that bullying and harassment comes in many forms, including physical and verbal abuse, racism, violence and humiliation; and should understand that social media is often used as a mechanism to bully.
Once fully informed with the facts, Mr Aitken says nurses and midwives facing bullying should talk to a supervisor or manager, a workplace health and safety representative, their Employee Assistance Program (EAP), their union or contact Nurse & Midwife Support for free and confidential support throughout the process of taking action.
Mr Aitken shared his top 5 tips for nurses and midwives to deal with workplace bullying.
GET HELP AND SUPPORT IMMEDIATELY
“If you feel you’re being bullied get help and support sooner rather than later,” Mr Aitken urges.
“Talk to a trusted colleague, friend, family member or indeed call us at Nurse & Midwife Support so that you get immediate support. What can happen to people is they don’t get immediate support or they go home and if they reflect on this [bullying] they can descend into a spiral where they become anxious and unwell.”
DOCUMENT THE BULLYING
“It’s really important to document the experience. Keep a file note, keep a journal note, complete an incident report documenting what happened. Sometimes, what we hear is people write this down but they accidently leave it in the workplace and a colleague reads it or they document it on the work computer and somebody reads it and it gets into the wrong hands. If you’re documenting it do that at home, don’t do it at work because we don’t want that information lying around and getting into the wrong hands.”
PRACTICE SELF-CARE STRATEGIES TO COPE
“Continue to engage in self-care strategies that keep you healthy, well and resilient. What often happens in this situation is people feel bullied and then they stop doing the things that keep them well. So they feel stressed, unhappy and unwell and they stop exercising, they don’t sleep well, they stop eating the right foods and doing all those things to keep well. So engaging in your self-care is critically important.”
KNOW YOUR RIGHTS AND RESPONSIBILITIES
“If you are called into a meeting around the bullying claims it’s important to know your rights and responsibilities. If you are called into a meeting in relation to what’s happening it’s a good idea to let the ANMF or your union know and to have a support person with you. What is key here is don’t isolate yourself, because withdrawing and isolating yourself can actually lead to poorer mental health.”
“It might be a terrible thing that’s happened to you but it is just one part of your life. It’s not your whole life, so really immerse yourself in gratitude and celebrate those things in your life that are really good for you and keep reminding yourself, this isn’t my whole life and this won’t go on forever. It’s really unfortunate it’s happening now but I’m empowering myself through action to deal with this.”
Nurse & Midwife Support provides free and confidential support 24/7 to nurses, midwives and students Australia wide. If you’re struggling with bullying and harassment and would like to speak to someone call 1800 667 877 or visit www.nmsupport.org.au