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Bullying still on the rise at troubled trust

Published on: 12 Jun 2024

An ambulance trust with a long history of cultural problems saw the proportion of staff reporting being bullied or harassed increase in 2023.

The survey by East of England Ambulance Service Trust found 35 per cent of staff who responded said they had experienced bullying or harassment over the last 12 months – up from 32 per cent in 2022, and 25 per cent in 2020.

The work commissioned by the trust also found that many staff who had experienced or seen bullying, or racial or sexual harassment, did not report it, with fear of retaliation being a key factor in their decision. Less than 40 per cent said they would speak to a Freedom to Speak Up Guardian about concerns.

The trust – which has made high-profile efforts to address cultural issues in recent years – said it was normal to see a rise in complaints as staff became aware poor behaviour would not be tolerated, and felt safer to speak out.

The trust was placed under special measures in September 2020 after a Care Quality Commission report which criticised poor leadership, a failure to protect staff and patients from sexual abuse and inappropriate behaviour and high levels of bullying and harassment. Its rating has improved from “inadequate” to “requires improvement” in July 2022 and conditions on its licence have gradually been lifted. In January it was removed from the NHS England recovery support programme, marking an end to special measures.

But the survey suggests that some cultural issues remain, despite intensive work by the trust, whose chief executive Tom Abell leaves next month to run the Mid and South Essex Integrated Care Board. A report to the board last year found some staff from minority ethnic backgrounds were subject to racist behaviour by colleagues, including monkey noises and references to “banana boats”.

The latest survey - which was undertaken in the middle of 2023 - found racial and sexual harassment had declined since 2020. In 2023, seven per cent of staff said they had experienced sexual harassment compared with 13 per cent in 2020 and those experiencing racial harassment or discrimination fell from seven per cent to three per cent. Harassment or discrimination due to sexual orientation or disability also fell.

However, reporting of incidents of harassment and discrimination – either by the staff involved or by other staff who witnessed it - remained low.

Hein Scheffer, the trust’s director of strategy, culture and education, said: “Bullying, harassment and poor behaviour have no place in our organisation and we regularly survey our people’s experience of workplace behaviours to help us root this out.

“We are working hard to improve our culture and we are among the most improved NHS organisations in England for staff feeling confident in speaking out – with 63% describing the trust as supportive.

“There is still more work to do to improve our culture. We have a wide range of channels for our people to raise issues and we are working to expand these further.

“It is usual to see a rise in complaints as people become increasingly aware that poor behaviour is not tolerated and feel safer in speaking out.”

The survey results, released to HSJ under the Freedom of Information Act, were discussed by the trust’s people committee which said there were some disappointing findings but they were pleased staff were coming forward.

The 2023 National NHS Staff Survey showed the trust had the lowest proportion of staff recommending it as a place to work of all ambulance trusts, and the highest proportion reporting discrimination from managers or staff;  although results had notably improved in 2022 and 2023.