"I'm angry today. No-one do anything irritating. This is your first and final warning."
Mr Richards* was a consultant obstetrician, and this was his way of saying good morning to the 15 doctors, midwives and other staff at handover. There was a stunned silence. Midwives exchanged glances.
From the back, a midwife called Abi piped up:
"Um...Mr Richards, are you due a holiday?"
The tension broke, everyone laughed, and even Mr Richards had to smile.
Back when I was a student, I thought that Abi was so cool. There was no way anyone would ever push her around. She just wasn't the type.
Shortly after, I started to get bullied.
The snide remarks went on for a few weeks until I took the staff member to one side and asked her what was up. It ended with her screaming close to my face ''You don't know when to stop!''
I was shaken, and though I kept my cool in the moment, it began to affect my confidence. How could a midwife be so outright unpleasant?
Eventually, I asked Abi for advice.
To my utter surprise, she said:
"That's happened to me too. It was awful. This particular midwife used to shout at me in front of everyone, give me a way too heavy workload, and she'd wait until the boss was about and drop hints about how bad my practice was."
I was stunned. Abi was 6 foot, blonde, with purple diamante glasses and seemed always confident and competent in her practice of 10+ years.
I took such courage from the fact that she'd been bullied too.
I'm so sorry if you've been bullied - it's a terrible position to be in, and makes me ashamed of midwifery sometimes. But please know Abi is proof being bullied means nothing about your ability or character.
She also taught me a really good trick for coping with bullies that I'm looking forward to passing to you.
First, there are some stats and studies you might like to know:
Bullying In Midwifery: A Big Problem
- In hospitals, obstetric units, in particular, are known for bullying. 13% of training doctors said they experienced bullying (General Medical Council)
- An RCM report found 43% of midwives and student midwives had been bullied (NB: there are study limitations)
Most of us have experienced it or seen it, and horrible statements or actions can linger in our minds longer than we like to admit.
Words sting - especially as a student or newly qualified midwife.
Over time, bullying wears people down, and midwives leave positions over it - which is not OK at any time - but with current staffing, it's dangerous.
The only way to totally stop bullying is to change the permissive culture that allows it.
But often if you're working on the shop floor you don't have that kind of power.
Abi's Tip: 'Calling Them Out'
Abi taught me to:
"Directly and specifically identify the bullying and state it back to them. It breaks their power and shows you're assertive."
This is simple but often works. You do have to get really specific.
Some examples of it in use are:
- 'You're pointing your finger around my face, it's aggressive. '
- 'That is the eighth piece of criticism I've received from you this hour. This is not constructive.'
- 'I over heard you telling a group of staff members I was 'incompetent and unsafe' because I forgot to document something. This is unprofessional and not constructive criticism.'
- 'You're raising your voice in the corridor, and clients can hear.'
- 'By giving me 5 conflicting jobs to do at once, you're not being an effective team member.'
Look them in the eye, stand tall.
Bullies will often by so surprised to have their power taken away that they will stop. They may even apologise. This has happened to me more than once.
It's a powerful tool, but someone who's a long term, engrained bully may become more abusive as they realise what's happening. Every bullying situation is complex and incredibly difficult, but 'Calling Them Out' is worth a go if you think it's appropriate. Be prepared to think on your feet, stay calm, and choose a day when you're feeling strong.
Remember, you're not doing anything wrong by simply stating what's happening.
If you keep calm and secure, they won't be able to accuse you of being unprofessional.
If they continue, or become more aggressive, you can say something like:
'I am happy to discuss this further, but only in a professional way, and in private.'
When you talk in private, take along a midwife friend, tutor or manager that you can trust -- you'll know in your gut who's the right choice for this.
In fact, my number one tip for dealing with bullies is:
Find midwives you trust who you can confide in.
(Like Abi for me!)
One more thing - write everything down. Specifics, names, dates, times.
There's nothing more powerful than a ring binder of documented behaviour.
Especially if you ask managers/tutors to get involved.
As someone who has had problems with bullying myself, as a student and qualified midwife, I've lingered over this post for days. I know how hard it is to fear going to work, and I don't want to give you advice that will make your life harder.
The truth is, on some occasions you may be best off leaving a particular workplace.
If the abuse is persistent and ingrained, no method of dealing with bullies is a guarantee.
Your career and mental health must come first, and you're too good to be bullied. (I know this won't be an option for everyone, but there may be things like working on another ward, on community, or at a small birth centre/other organisation you could consider?)
If you try to address the bullying before leaving, even if it doesn't work, you'll be respected for it.
You'll lay the groundwork for someone else to stand up to a bully. If you tell a manager you're considering leaving, because you don't want to spend time and effort on a bully when you already have a difficult job, it'll have a massive impact.
And can you imagine how quickly the culture in midwifery would change if every bullied member of staff started 'Calling Them Out'?
Now I'd love to hear from you.
1) Have you ever been bullied?
2) Do you have any good strategies for dealing with bullies, or wisdom to share?
3) Has 'Calling Them Out' worked for you? If you could leave a comment (protecting identities) telling us what happened, it might be just what someone else needs to hear.
If you need some help/are feeling alone, you can always email me confidentially at firstname.lastname@example.org, or come and join the 'Secret Community For Midwives In The Making' - I'm constantly astounded by how good the support is there.
Hope all is good with you and yours, and midwifery, thanks so much for reading. If you think a midwifery mate would find this post helpful, please share it with them.
P.S....I've changed all names and details so no-one can be identified. I hope Abi can spot herself though!