Bullying in health sector takes turn for the worse

The prognosis for the health sector appears to have just taken a rather bad turn for the worse with the release of a troubling new survey into workplace bullying.

The survey of senior medical specialists — which is to say, the same people more than a few of us may be putting our lives in the care of over the holiday break — showed that half of doctors experience workplace bullying "to some degree", while 67 percent reported having witnessed a colleague being bullied.

Other behaviours described in the report included actual violence, threats, and intimidation through to humiliation, persistent criticism, allegations, gossip, exclusion, and excessive monitoring of work. The responses suggested some of these issues are more pronounced in the provinces.

How does the sector feel about these findings? Not terribly happy, according to the group that commissioned the research.

Association of Salaried Medical Specialists president, Hein Stander, described it as "a symptom of a health system that has significant systemic problems".

Nevertheless, along with others, the association chief seems better at describing the problem than prescribing a solution.

Professional dispute resolution services may be the tonic the sector desperately needs at both the corporate and individual level.

To be sure, not every instance of workplace bullying can or should be worked through with professional mediators. According to Maria Dew, a senior employment barrister who has worked in a variety of dispute resolution processes for sexual harassment and bullying complaints, she says allegations of serious abuse or harm may sometimes require some sort of formal complaint and investigation process rather than mediation. And mediation is not a replacement for good management.

In other cases, however, mediation or facilitation can provide an equally robust and transparent process for parties, Dew says. “They will certainly have the advantage of engaging the parties early, and in a collaborative way, on the problem and the solution.”

Dew says she has seen mediation and facilitation work “particularly well” in employment relationship bullying disputes — “so long as the parties are well briefed and prepared for the process”.

Mediation techniques can also be used to change the entire culture of an organisation — and thus greatly reduce the number of individual allegations needing to be dealt with — as has been the case with our country’s flagship air carrier.

Four years ago, Air New Zealand set about changing a culture that resembled the reported state of the health sector.

For years, industrial relations followed a set path,” says chief executive Christopher Luxon. “The company would come up with a plan, dump it on the union, workers wouldn't like it, talks were held, they broke down, industrial action was threatened and then there was costly litigation.”

The result, as one report at the time put it: happy, highly paid lawyers, and a deeply unhappy airline and its workers.

Seeking a change, the company brought in dispute-resolution specialists to help improve employee-company relationships.

This they evidently did. Personal grievance cases — to take one clear example of workplace tranquility — are now less than half of what they were just a few years ago.

Why do these company or sector-wide techniques apparently help many corporate cultures?

In my experience, they work by instilling sound workplace ethics. They teach early identification and early resolution skills. They establish effective processes, not least empathy, creative thought and basic conflict-management skills. And they’re a heck of a lot more cost-efficient than the price organisations have to pay when bullying and harassment, and indeed conflict generally, are the style.

In the case of our health professionals, that could be just what the doctor ordered.

Deborah Hart is the executive director of the Arbitrators’ and Mediators’ Institute of New Zealand.

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