The news that a culture of bullying pervades the NHS and stories of surgeons throwing scalpels and bawling out interns is quite alarming. Patients are also in the firing line. The sentencing of Ian Paterson, jailed for 15 years after carrying out unnecessary cancer operations, highlighted the safety risks on the public when junior medical staff are too intimidated to report poor practice.
So why’s it happening? In traditional societies and equivalent organisations, there’s the belief that the boss is God. The aviation industry got on to the downside of this attitude years ago following fatal air crashes deemed avoidable had the crew been able to “talk back” to their captain to warn him of a poor decision in-flight. Safety records improved immediately. But in 2013, after the Korean Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco, speculation was made that the prang, which cost lives and hundreds of injuries, was down to a same-same command issue. The Korean mindset.
In an article of the time by Heesun Wee for CBBC, he quoted Thomas Kochan, a professor at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as saying, ‘The Korean culture has two features—respect for seniority and age, and quite an authoritarian style. You put those two together, and you may get more one-way communication—and not a lot of it upward.’
Understood. But it’s a fine line between ditching the hierarchical structure to avoid bullying and save lives and preserving it to maintain discipline and save lives. Yesterday the BBC One Show ran the story of surgeons taking to their bikes to raise awareness amongst trainees on how to cope with an operating theatre prima donna’s rant for the #LetsCycleIt and #LetsRemoveIt. The same day we also heard from an emergency worker how staff now “expected” to be assaulted by the ungrateful, drugged-up or drunk public, while going about their highly honourable business of trying to save lives.
There are no easy fixes to this predicament. These campaigns are great. Talking about it helps, as does writing about it. In The Missing Activist, a young Tory campaigner disappears in London after lodging a complaint: he’s been bullied by a senior member of the party. He fears for his long-term dream of a career in politics. But when our heroine Karen Andersen tries to investigate, she’s obstructed at every turn as senior echelons close ranks to protect Party interests. Sound familiar? The moral question is, should he ever challenged the authority in the first place?
As someone who’s been speaking on this subject for early twenty years since I set up Act Against Bullying, it’s a question nearly everyone grapples with in one form or another every single day. They live in fear of the Kurdaitcha. Whether to stay schtum or sing out? Is a grass sneak or saviour? I’ll leave it to you to judge.