Published: 03/11/2005 Volume 115 No. 5980 Page 33

Cutting levels of staff harassment would save millions, but Amicus believes ombudsmen are needed to stamp it out. Alexis Nolan reports

The NHS needs to tackle a deep-seated culture of bullying rather than just pay lip service to addressing the issues, according to Gail Cartmail, head of health at union Amicus.

The union and the Department of Trade and Industry launched the dignity at work partnership project last month. The project aims to help employers fight bullying within their organisations. And NHS Employers was among the employers at the launch event. It is planning to launch a framework later this year to help NHS organisations reduce bullying.

Recent research suggests that a cut in bullying and harassment in the NHS of just 1 per cent would save£9m a year.

'People [in the NHS] express the right sentiments and I think genuine attempts have been made - for example, with the Positively Diverse initiative and in bullying and harassment, but I do not think anybody is properly accountable, ' says Gail.

'There is a bullying culture at every level of the NHS, and the only way to tackle it is if we have strategic people, ombudsmen to take on accountability for strategies to tackle bullying and harassment in the workplace.

'It is not difficult. It just requires guts to tackle the issue and a network of people that are accountable at a local level.

'But it would require people with real courage to take the roles on, because there is a very real reliance on bullying at senior manager levels. It is embedded in the system.' Amicus is repeating its call for the appointment of ombudsmen in strategic health authorities, to co-ordinate and monitor policies applied at trust level within their area.

It first suggested the system in October 2003, on the back of a survey of two union sub-associations - the Community Practitioners' and Health Visitors' Association and the Mental Health Nurses Association.

Of 537 community nurses surveyed, half had been bullied in their current job, mainly by senior colleagues.

This year's NHS staff survey showed that problems persist. One in 10 NHS staff said they had experienced harassment, bullying or abuse from colleagues, and 7 per cent said they had suffered similarly at the hands of managers. One per cent said they had suffered physical violence from colleagues.

Of those suffering harassment, bullying or abuse, 46 per cent did not report it, even though 85 per cent of all staff said they knew how.

And while 48 per cent said their employer takes effective action if staff are bullied, harassed or abused, 41 per cent did not know and 11 per cent said they did not.

'Quite apart from the exposure to harassment from patients and their families or carers, the NHS still has a pervading culture of command and control. I do not think That is healthy. And the fact one report after another shows that the issue is not diminishing also shows that it needs action, ' says Gail.

This year's staff survey showed that 35 per cent of staff had suffered from workrelated stress over the previous 12 months, and Gail says this can lead to staff leaving the NHS, often because of ill health.

'These are often highly skilled postgraduates with extensive training and a lot invested in their development by the NHS. It is such a waste, ' says Gail.

'If taking something seriously equates to really sitting down and working out a department-level strategy in every NHS establishment, then clearly the NHS is not taking this issue seriously enough.

At the heart of the dignity at work partnership project is an action pack designed to encourage employee representatives and employers to build organisational cultures where respect for individuals is embedded in the system, and staff make sure they reflect that in their conduct.

This week, HSJ has launched a new Good Management service for readers. For more information on bullying, please visit www. goodmanagement-hsj. co. uk/ bullying