Bullying and harassment ‘rife’ at the Royal Free, and bosses told ‘more work to be done’

A view of the Royal Free Hospital teaching hospital in the Hampstead area of the London Borough of C

A view of the Royal Free Hospital teaching hospital in the Hampstead area of the London Borough of Camden. The hospital is part of the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust. PA Photo. Picture date: Thursday February 6, 2020. Picture: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire - Credit: PA

Bullying and harassment at the Royal Free NHS Trust remains “rife” and “significantly worse” than the national average, according to a staff survey.

Caroline Clarke, the new chief executive of the Royal Free Hospital NHS Trust. Picture: RFH

Caroline Clarke, the new chief executive of the Royal Free Hospital NHS Trust. Picture: RFH - Credit: Archant

The Royal Free Hospital, as a specialist centre for infectious diseases, was one of the first in the country to treat Covid-19 patients and staff have been on the front line in the fight against the virus.

But results of survey in late 2019 show that despite a damning report by the health watchdog, bullying remains a problem.

The trust has admitted it is “clear there remains more work to do” on persistent issues identified by the annual staff survey – including bullying, equality and diversity, violence, and health and wellbeing.

A survey was completed between September and December 2019 by 3,810 staff at the Royal Free in Hampstead, its sister hospitals in Barnet and Chase Farm and the Royal Free’s community services.

Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead on Sunday, March 22, 2020. Picture: André Langlois

Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead on Sunday, March 22, 2020. Picture: André Langlois - Credit: Archant

More than one in three – 34 per cent – of BAME (Black and minority ethnic) respondents reported experiencing harassment, bullying or abuse at the hands of other hospital staff in the last 12 months - an 8pc increase on 2018.

READ MORE: Royal Free Hospital: CQC downgrades NHS trust to ‘requires improvement’ over safety, responsiveness and financial woes

In response to the Black Lives Matter protests, the trust’s board said it was “a place where we want all staff to feel safe, protected and listened to” and it did “not tolerate racism or hate crime”.

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Across the staff body as a whole, 25.4pc of respondents said they had been harassed, abused or bullied by colleagues, with 17.2pc saying such bullying had come from their managers.

In response to the data, the trust’s acting chief people officer Ragini Patel writes in a public report: “Our results for 2019 show that even though we continue to roll out various actions and initiatives to demonstrate we won’t tolerate any form of bullying, harassment or abuse, it still is rife.”

The same report says 2019 saw the number of bullying and harassment cases formally closed by the trust rise from 33 in 2018 to 46, while separate data about the Royal Free’s “freedom to speak up guardians” scheme – designed to encourage whistleblowing – shows that 13 of 23 issues raised anonymously by members of staff concerned bullying or harassment.

A year ago, the Care Quality Commission (CQC) downgraded the Royal Free Trust to “requires improvement”, citing a “culture of bullying in operating theatres” and that the trust “had not effectively addressed issues of bullying and harassment and feelings of intimidation caused by a very hierarchical working environment”.

At the time, the trust’s chief executive Caroline Clarke said it had already been focussing on issues of bullying, and that she was confident progress was “already being made”.

Responding to the late 2019 staff survey, Matthew Parris, director of watchdog Healthwatch Camden said: “The wellbeing of our doctors, nurses and other frontline staff has a direct impact on the quality of patient care and safety, and these survey results show that the majority of staff at the Royal Free Trust are having a good experience at work.”

“But with one in three experiencing harassment, bullying or abuse by a colleague within the last 12 months, it’s clear there is more work to do for the management teams at the Royal Free to tackle this persistent issue.”

READ MORE: Royal Free Hospital receptionist tells of trauma as Covid-19 positive partner fought for his life while she worked downstairs

He added that with staff “just as likely” to be abused or harassed by a patient or member of the public, “we must all play our part in recognising the sacrifice made by frontline staff” and express concerns through official channels, or through Healthwatch Camden.

The Royal Free’s report says videos about “suitable behaviours” have been seen by more than 1,000 staff, but that the staff survey data suggested this work was not “having the desired impact”.

Bullying and harassment has been reported as “above average” across London’s NHS Trusts as a whole.

The Royal College of Nursing’s London Operational Manager, Mark Farmer, said: “Its totally unacceptable that any nurse should be bullied, harassed or discriminated by another colleague or member of the public. A nurse in this position must speak up and know that the RCN will support them.”

“Nursing staff kept the NHS afloat in London during the peak of COVID-19. If employers don’t take practical steps to challenge and change workplace culture the risk is more nurses will be forced to leave their jobs, staffing levels will be stretched to the bone and patient care will suffer. The RCN and the Trust are committed to addressing these issues in partnership.”

A spokesperson for the Royal Free said: “We do not tolerate bullying and harassment and since the survey was conducted in autumn 2019 the trust has done a huge amount to encourage and support all of our 10,000 staff to come forward if they witness negative behaviour. This includes appointing 67 ‘speaking up’ champions who staff can speak to confidentially about their experience, setting up an anti-bullying and harassment working group and the provision of a mediation service.

“We believe this has improved confidence in how we respond to this important issue and as a result more staff are speaking out.”