A major survey published today of senior specialist working in public hospitals found more than a third had been bullied at work, and two-thirds had witnessed others being bullied – mostly by fellow doctors.

The survey of senior doctors and dentists by the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists (ASMS) was being presented to the ASMS Annual Conference in Wellington today and showed that much of the bullying was between medical colleagues.

The report, Bullying in the New Zealand senior medical workforce: prevalence, correlates and consequences, is based on a survey of ASMS members in June 2017 with a nearly 41 per cent response rate.

Dr Hein Stander said in a foreword to the report that he felt a “deep sadness on reading the survey findings” as he knew workplace bullying had been a concern for some time but the “high prevalence and nature of it shocked me”.

Dr Kate Baddock, the chair of the New Zealand Medical Association (NZMA) said she was concerned by the ASMS study findings and encouraged employers and colleges to continue their focus on eliminating “these unprofessional behaviours”. She said while some colleagues experienced bullying behaviour from patients, most of what was described came from colleagues – both clinical and managerial “and that is just unacceptable”.

Behaviour described in the report ranges from violence, threats and intimidation through to humiliation, persistent criticism, allegations, gossip, exclusion and excessive monitoring of work.

Key findings included:

  • More than a third of respondents (37.2%) said they had been bullied, and more than two-thirds (67.5%) reported witnessing bullying of colleagues.
  • Other senior medical staff were the most commonly cited perpetrators for self-reported and witnessed bullying behaviour (52.5% overall) Non-clinical managers were also cited as a regular source of bullying (31.8%), as were those in clinical leadership positons (24.9%).
  • The prevalence of bullying in New Zealand’s senior doctors appears higher than shown in comparable international surveys of health sector workers. The prevalence of bullying is strongly associated with high workplace demands, and low peer and non-clinical managerial support.
  • Workplace bullying occurs more often, and in different forms, for certain groups of senior doctors, eg overseas-trained doctors working in New Zealand, women, doctors aged 40 to 59, and in some specialties (emergency medicine, general surgery and specialist surgery).
  • Only a third of doctors who said they had been bullied reported what had happened, with the main reasons for not reporting being fear of not being supported, and concern that reporting would make the situation worse.

ASMS Executive Director Ian Powell said the survey findings were very concerning and the union would be discussing them further with DHB chief executives and senior managers. Copies of the report had been sent to all DHB Chief Executives, as well as new Minister of Health, Dr David Clark.

“The prevalence of bullying, coupled with the findings of our previous research into burnout and SMO presenteeism, is yet another symptom of a health system groaning under the pressure of years of neglect and under-resourcing,” said Powell.

“A number of DHBs are already making very positive moves in taking up initiatives to address bullying and other unprofessional behaviour, but much more is required at a systemic level to provide adequate levels of workforce resourcing and to bring about meaningful culture change within hospitals.”

Baddock said the stressful environment in which many of its members work, lack of resources, staffing shortages and long working hours were all contributing factors.
“But there is no excuse. Given that clinical managers, clinical directors and those in leadership positions were commonly cited as perpetrators, work remains to ensure that everyone is held to account for negative behaviours, no matter where in the organisation they stand.

She said the recent policy statement on bullying by the World Medical Association, put forward by the NZMA, made it clear that this was an issue of professionalism. “It is not just about how we treat our patients, but how we treat our colleagues. The responsibility lies with all of us to collectively seek a change in culture.

“Our Code of Ethics is also very clear on this: doctors have a responsibility to behave cooperatively and respectfully towards team members, and a responsibility to assist colleagues under stress. This sort of behaviour is bad for individual doctors, for our profession and for patients.”

The full report: Bullying in the New Zealand senior medical workforce: prevalence, correlates and consequences, is available on the ASMS website.

The research was carried out by ASMS Principal Analyst Dr Charlotte Chambers, with statistical analysis by Professor Chris Frampton from the University of Otago. The survey of ASMS members was carried out in June 2017, with a response rate of 40.8%


Bullying Resources

  • Netsafe website has a page dedicated to advice on online bullying and harassment netsafe.org.nzor you can email them directly for advice at: help@netsafe.org.nz or phone them on 0508 638 723
  • New Zealand Nurses Organisation workplace bullying information and guidance: nzno.org.nz/bullyfree
  • WorkSafe New Zealand bullying prevention tools:
  • Lifeline Aotearoa: 24-hour telephone counselling 0800 543 354

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