Unfortunately I came across many bullies when working in mental health environments – the very place where the staff have been trained to care for people, to provide preceptorship supervision and mentorship to their colleagues.
What is bullying?
UNISON* has defined workplace bullying as persistent offensive, intimidating, humiliating behaviour, which attempts to undermine an individual or group of employees.
Bullying at work can be broadly broken down into two different types. That which is: personal in nature – e.g. derogatory remarks about a person’s appearance or private life and work-related – e.g. questioning a person’s professional competence, allocating unachievable tasks. Many bullies will of course engage in both types.
During a placement in the Community Mental Health Team (CMHT), I was horrified that at the age of thirty-six I was being bullied by my supervisor Alan (an ex-policeman). I thought I’d put all that behind me when I finally left the school gates. This vile man would constantly belittle me, talk over me and question my judgement and knowledge of patients and undermine me in front of colleagues He’d ignore my input and he’d snigger at my Cockney accent if I spoke in meetings, because he knew I hated it. He’d deliberately leave me out of ward rounds when ‘my/our’ patients were being seen saying there was no point me attending as I had nothing to add. He smirked as he refused to sign my attendance sheets saying he didn’t know what days I turned up or didn’t – only because he came in late every day. I was lucky that his colleagues took pity on me and took me out on patient visits or to ward rounds in the hospital. He blatantly ignored my attempts to communicate with him but still he looked furious when I said I had no option other than to speak to the CMHT Manager. His boss had to act as mediator for the rest of my placement because Alan continued to intimidate me with his passive aggressive stance. How sad that two ‘adults’ had to resort to this!
Based on research into thousands of cases of bullying at work, Tim Field** believed the serial bully’s focus is on power, control and subjugation of others. They usually operate by targeting one individual and bullying them relentlessly until they break down or leave. They then move on to their next victim. By the time organisations realise that there is a serial bully in their midst, considerable damage has already been done.
The policeman’s wife
My next placement was in a mental health rehab unit and on my first morning during ward round I noticed the Consultant’s leather holdall with her name engraved on it. She was only the serial bullying policeman’s wife – and my heart sank to my stomach. However, she was as sweet as he was sour and as warm as he was cold; she was smiley and encouraging and I liked working with her. It was during this time that she told me they were going through an acrimonious divorce. Not sure I had any sympathy for him.
Don’t rock the boat
It was also during my next placement in the rehab unit that I came across Ricky who was the Acting Manager. I told him about one particular patient, a young lad called Devlin who found it difficult wake up, to get up, showered and dressed before morning medication and breakfast. The nurses wouldn’t re-open the treatment room to give him his medication and they refused him breakfast, telling him that he should get up earlier. Ricky’s response was eyes rolling and “Tut, this is a rehab unit Nancy and patients have to learn how to get up and ready in time for medication and breakfast. This is why they’re here.” I flippin’ knew it was rehab! Nonetheless, some patients need to be encouraged to get up on time, “get him an alarm clock or something” I suggested. More eye rolling and tutting but he did open the treatment room and give Devlin his morning medication. I made some toast and tea for Devlin but was severely criticised and told by Ricky that I shouldn’t have done this and not to do it again because other patients will expect it too.
I also spoke to Ricky with regards to the nurse who came in each night shift with her slippers and duvet and slept on the sofa once the patients had gone to bed. I highlighted the risk to our patients, myself and colleagues as we were one member of staff down when she slept. Huffing and puffing or tutting and heavy sighing, he told me that I was there and would make up the numbers. However, as students, we were there to learn by shadowing colleagues and not to be counted in the staff numbers. First he said “What do you want me to do Nancy?” Without allowing me time to answer, he went on to say that Ayo, the ‘sleeper’, had been there so long on night shifts because she had children so they cut her a bit of slack. More likely, he didn’t want to rock the boat; he was afraid of his long-term staff and I think he lacked the confidence to deal with them effectively. However, he had no problem making derisory comments about my naivety and lack of lack managerial knowledge or how to deal with staff. I lost respect for him as a Manager and couldn’t even be bothered to tell him that I’d been a Human Resource Manager for almost twenty years.
I asked casually how long Ayo had been on permanent nights and was astonished when he told me twenty years. This lady had grandchildren by now and no one had ever questioned her working nights constantly, which was against Trust Policy. Ricky refused to take action and I was berated for raising problems where there was none and told “Don’t even think of informing Human Resources. It would just mean more paperwork and aggravation.” – for him no doubt! Ricky made it as difficult for me as possible to raise concerns about the poor practice I witnessed on the unit. However, I was able to write about it all in my Practice Based Assessments and the essay that followed this placement and felt vindicated by the Uni lecturers’ comments and high marks I received for both.
I eventually qualified as a mental health nurse and within four years I was promoted to Ward Manager (Band 7). I often bumped into the bullying policeman who was still working at Band 6 level and the Acting Manager who’d since been demoted back to Band 6 and without exception I greeted them with the same cheery smile I’d always given them.
*Tackling bullying at work, A UNISON guide for safety reps
**Tim Field, UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line between 1996 and 2004