Published: 11/08/2005, Volume II5, No. 5967 Page 25
The lights dimmed. I nestled into my chair. The first slide appeared: 'What can the NHS do to improve the health of its staff?' My pupils widened. My anticipation increased.
I love such talks. They feel familiar and slightly worn. They have a musty quality that reminds me of my favourite toy as a child: Busby, a knitted soldier I took everywhere until, at the age five, I flung him in a cupboard and took up toy guns.
As I heard the soothing click of the mouse, the slide show began.
The bullet points revealed themselves: 'Healthy eating'. I sighed. 'Good occupational health'. I smiled. 'Pedometers and lunchtime walks.' I almost cheered. I waited for the next. What would it be, I mused.
Up it came: 'Stop bullying'. I sat up with a start. Rather blunt, I thought.
Doesn't fit with the usual routine. I felt bemused.
On the way home, I remembered a discussion I had had with a colleague on a management course three years earlier. Competent and articulate, he confided that he was having trouble with his boss. He told me such horrific stories that my immediate response was disbelief. I strove to be sympathetic, but part of me wanted to say: 'Pull yourself together, man.' Several months ago I mentioned these incidents to my sister, who responded with tact and insight.
'David', she said, 'why do you find it so hard to talk about bullying?' Suddenly, the reason became clear.
As a child, I was bullied. There.
I've said it. It happened intermittently, and it wasn't particularly nasty, but I was bullied all the same. It undermined my confidence and reinforced my selfdoubt. It left me feeling stupid and emasculated. And it was widespread.
Mine was in no way an unusual or special tale. But being bullied was hard. And admitting to having been bullied was also hard. It smelt of weakness. Talking about it was almost as tough as being bullied in the first place.
In recent weeks, I've heard many stories from friends and acquaintances up and down the country. There were managers who bullied subordinates, they claimed, and patients who bullied clinicians. I heard how clinicians had bullied others, and so on. Details varied, but there were similarities. Bullying caused misery. It led to poor performance. On occasion, longterm sickness followed. I also heard about excellent attempts to stop bullying, which could be rolled out.
It is true that stopping bullying in the NHS would improve the health of its employees. But might it be that organisationally we find it so hard to engage because it reminds many of us of being bullied? Similarly, might it remind us of times when we bullied others?
These are hard truths to face. To tackle bullying we might have to face our own vulnerabilities and remember times when we felt so diminished that we sobbed ourselves to sleep. We might also have to face the times when we made others' lives difficult. And what is the incentive to face such home truths?
Systematically tackling bullies might be an excellent example of corporate citizenship. Other organisations could learn from the commitment of the NHS to promoting fairness, staff welfare and the effective use of resources.
However, success would demand profound cultural change. We must reinforce the belief that bullying is inexcusable. Victims should be able to talk about their experiences without fear of recrimination or stigma. Without such measures we could be in danger of believing that balanced meal options and brisk walks alone make for a healthy workforce. .
David Woodhead works in the public health team at the Healthcare Commission. He writes in a personal capacity.