Less than a punch but more than a put-down, bullying at work can be hard to prove but traumatic for those on the receiving end. How widespread is it in social work, asks Gordon Carson
I’ve never seen anyone grab an office colleague by the lapels, as Gordon Brown is alleged to have done to a Downing Street adviser, but there’s a chance that many of us will have witnessed or, perhaps, even experienced the more insidious forms of workplace bullying that are prevalent in social care.
Jo*, a former social worker in Rotherham Council’s community mental health team for older people, says she suffered months of nit-picking about her performance, and behind-the-scenes criticism aimed at undermining her, before she was eventually sacked.
The council subsequently admitted her dismissal was not carried out in accordance with its procedures but said it could not find any evidence of bullying. However, an investigation found that Jo’s manager openly discussed concerns about her work in meetings with other team members.
A Unison survey in Rotherham earlier this month prompted allegations in the local press that the council social services department was in the “Premier League” of workplace bullying. Nobody at the council was available to comment.
It would be unfair to focus on Rotherham, however, for we know from other surveys that workplace bullying in social work is widespread. A third of 750 respondents to an online Community Care poll last month said their current managers are bullies, while 31% of 233 social worker respondents to Unison’s 2008 Time for a Change survey of local government workers said they were subject to, or were likely to witness, bullying at work. This compared with only 13.7% of classroom assistants and 16.4% of care workers in general.
While headline figures such as these make depressing reading for social work, at ground level one of the main problems is that bullying is not easy to define, certainly not in the same way as a punch in the face constitutes physical violence, and as such it can often depend on one person’s word against that of another.
Apart from through occasional surveys, national figures on workplace bullying allegations in social care are not collected by any bodies. But anecdotal evidence suggests the problem is getting worse. Helga Pile, Unison’s national officer for social work, blames a “toxic combination of more demands on services at a time when resources are being cut and jobs are going, particularly support jobs”.
Roger Kline, social care spokesperson for children’s services union Aspect, says funding pressures are “leading managers in a direction where bullying is going on”. He points out, though, that bullying is not confined to frontline workers and that managers are victims too.
Despite the lack of concrete data, there is little support for a national register of bullying incidents or perpetrators in social care, particularly because many cases are resolved informally rather than pursued through formal grievance and disciplinary procedures.
“Any national monitoring system that puts the spotlight on employers would be good,” says Kline, “but I think a register would be very difficult because only a tiny proportion of bullying cases are formally reported, never mind go to court. Indeed, there might be a risk that employers who acknowledge the problem could look worse than the ones that suppress it.”
John Nawrockyi, secretary of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services workforce development network, says he is “not sure what the benefits would be in relation to the massive resources needed to create and maintain [a register]”.
Pile suggests that, instead of allegations being recorded on a register, questions on bullying could form part of the workforce health check the Social Work Task Force has recommended employers in England to complete.
Most social work employers should have policies in place to tackle bullying and harassment, and Nawrockyi says they all take a “zero tolerance approach” to dealing with the problem. However, Kline says that while most employers have “wonderful policies”, the real issue is that they are not enforced because “too often employers confuse strong management with bullying”.
Code of practice
The General Social Care Council’s code of practice for social care workers requires all staff to work openly and co-operatively with colleagues and treat them with respect, while the (non-mandatory) code for social care employers only refers to bullying once, in stating that employers should “make it clear to social care workers that bullying, harassment or any form of unjustifiable discrimination is not acceptable”.
Workplace bullying is not an issue addressed directly by the care services regulators either, although Ofsted does run a “whistleblower” helpline for people to express concerns over the way children’s services are run.
There are several routes social workers can take if they feel they are being bullied, starting with informal approaches to the bullies themselves, and potentially legal action if they can claim they have suffered discrimination (see box).
Government and sector leaders have also taken steps to improve awareness of the effects of bullying among employers and frontline staff alike. For example, last November the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills published its Preventing Workplace Harassment and Violence guidance , which highlights legislation covering all forms of harassment at work.
For those who continue to suffer bullying, though, the effects can be very traumatic. Jo says her experiences affected her confidence, prevented her from working for almost three years, and have deterred her from remaining in social work.
* Not her real name
Your views on workplace bullying
● shellie “We are trained to treat all people with respect, no matter what their personal circumstances, only to find that the very people who are given licence to intervene in vulnerable people’s lives find it difficult to embrace individual difference within their own team and feel justified in ‘bullying’ tactics and behaviour.”
● kara nuts “As a locum I was bullied by managers because I earned more than them. I just put up with it. Our own profession is discriminative inwardly, so what hope for clients/service users?”
● lionel “It’s often easy for some people to depict any difference of opinion as ‘bullying’. Could it be that sometimes social workers enter the profession just wanting to do some good but find that working for an organisation that has ‘big picture’ priorities gets in the way of their cosy, perhaps naive, vision?”
● aitch “I don’t feel that I have been bullied at work but I have seen plenty of bullying in social work as a team member, a colleague and as a union steward. One thing I have observed is that bullies rarely work alone.” Have your say at www.communitycare.co.uk/carespace/
What can I do if I am being bullied at work?
Helga Pile, Unison
● Keep a log of what’s happening, with time and dates and details of anybody who might have witnessed what happened. Look at the policies your employer has in place.
● Contact your union for support and advice. Local union reps may know of other cases.
● Although some people try to resolve problems informally, quite often people don’t realise the impact of bullying until they get to the point where confronting the bully is too difficult.
Roger Kline, Aspect
● Firstly, draw to the attention of the person doing the bullying that you are uncomfortable.
● If that doesn’t sort things out or makes things worse, you need to think about making a more formal complaint and getting advice from a trade union. We try to establish what’s going on, but just because someone’s told that their work isn’t good enough doesn’t mean they are being bullied.
Jane Lindsay, BASW Scotland
● Before doing anything, check out how angry you are. If you are too wound up, leave it until you are calmer. That way your complaint will be more credible and probably more coherent.
● If you feel your dignity is being compromised, start gathering credible evidence.
● Concentrate on the actual behaviour of the person who you believe is bullying you. Listen to their tone of voice, look at their body language. What specifically do they say that leaves you feeling humiliated or frightened? How long has it been going on?
Avenues of complaint
The principal method of complaining is through internal grievance procedures.
If you are forced to resign due to bullying you may be able to make a claim for constructive dismissal.
Unison’s Helga Pile says breach of contract cases can be brought on the basis of employers breaching their implied duty of care, while it may also be possible to make a civil claim for negligence. The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 can also be used against employers where workers have been subjected to oppressive and unreasonable conduct, she adds.
Acas (helpline: 08457 474 747) and Citizens Advice can also provide advice and support.
Published in the 18 March 2010 issue of Community Care under the headline ‘Bully for you’