This article is part of a series of research-based pieces that explore harassment by industry, including healthcare, hospitality, tech, and the industrial and manufacturing sector. The series also delves into harassment-related issues brought about by transitions to in-person, remote and hybrid office work models.
In an era where many states and organizations are committed to eliminating workplace harassment, companies across the nation have put the focus on creating a better work environment for their employees. For the healthcare industry the situation has been particularly sensitive and challenging. Why? Because the high-pressure, high-stakes healthcare environment is like no other.
It’s stressful. And when people are experiencing a constant level of stress, it can lead to burnout and prompt behaviors such as microaggressions and bullying, ultimately leading to harassment and creating a workplace where employees do not feel safe.
Let’s look at some of the statistics regarding harassment related behavior in a healthcare setting, discuss why it’s so important to address them and look at overarching solutions that can help create a safer and more inclusive work environment.
Why it’s so important to address bullying in health care
While all industries struggle with bullying, the American Medical Association (AMA) states that, “The hierarchical nature of healthcare has made it susceptible to workplace bullying.” One study showed that over a 6-month period, 78% of students experienced bullying in nursing school. And over half of nursing students reported seeing or experiencing nurse-on-nurse bullying during their clinical rotations. Within the first 6 months, 60% of nurses leave their first job due to the behavior of their coworkers.
Considered a form of harassment, bullying is “a repeated, health-harming mistreatment” and “abusive conduct that takes the form of verbal abuse; or behaviors perceived as threatening, intimidating, or humiliating; work sabotage; or in some combination of the above,” according to the Workplace Bullying Institute.
And it’s not just the victims who suffer—the quality of patient care is affected as well. “Patient care is delivered not by a single individual but by a team of individuals,” says Audiey C. Kao, MD, PhD, vice president of ethics standards at the AMA. “If you work in a health care environment where bullying is prevalent or even accepted or not dealt with, you’ll create an unhealthy team dynamic … where individuals are hesitant to raise patient care issues over concerns that they will not be taken seriously because they have been bullied in the past.”
Harassment is crippling for individuals and organizations
According to the American Nurses Association, harassment “is a systemic and pervasive problem within healthcare, not a series of random acts.” And preventing it “requires a systemic, holistic approach to change management.” And to be clear, nurses aren’t the only group experiencing harassment.
A recent study found that women doctors face high levels of harassment and frustration: 56% said it was difficult or very difficult to advance in their careers, and only 39% said their work conditions and career satisfaction were similar to that/those of their male colleagues. Nearly three-quarters (74%) of the female doctors said they experienced general sexist remarks and behaviors in their training or work, 45% reported inappropriate sexual advances, and 22% reported coercive advances.
- said it was difficult or very difficult to advance in their careers56%
- said they experienced general sexist remarks and behaviors in their training or work74%
- reported inappropriate sexual advances45%
The consequences of not addressing harassment can be crippling. “Workplace sexual harassment and bullying have been linked to mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, and may contribute to the development of burnout among victims of both direct and indirect harassment.” As a result, not only do individuals suffer, but teams are unable to perform well and the organization as a whole cannot function properly.
Cultivating a culture of empathy and compassion
One place to start in preventing harassment is to cultivate a culture of empathy and compassion among leaders, managers and employees—and ensure that policies and reporting structures support that culture. Healthcare organizations must take the time to create awareness about the problem and commit to taking the steps needed to create culture change. The National Academy of Medicine urges organizations “to take steps to promote authentic conversations to truly address these challenges.” They also suggest implementing “Effective organizational training programs designed to educate participants about unconscious bias, workplace norms, effective communication.”
And because culture must be supported by organizational structure, they also recommend that “Reporting mechanisms must be clear, and complainants must feel secure that reporting such behavior will not negatively affect their lives or careers and that their complaints will be properly investigated.” Along with these recommendations on education, training and reporting structure, organizations must also ensure that their policies provide clarity about what is and is not considered to be acceptable behavior—and be prepared to hold people accountable, regardless of their rank within the organization.
If the organization values empathy and compassion, then the individuals in it will as well. As the culture begins to shift, remember to celebrate and reward the champions in your organization who go above and beyond to create a healthy workplace culture. It will take time, patience and commitment. But as others follow, the organization, along with everyone in it, will be in a much better position to grow and thrive.