Speak up: A graduate midwife’s experience with bullying

Rachel*, Registered Midwife
Registered midwife Rachel shares how she found the courage to speak up against bullying in her graduate year.
Rachel's story

Photograph of midwives assisting in delivery of baby

Rachel*, a registered midwife, shared her story with us about an experience she had with bullying in her graduate year:
In my graduate year as a midwife I worked with a senior midwife who was my manager who bullied other staff, mostly the junior midwives and especially targeted graduates. Let’s call her Beatrice*.

Beatrice’s behaviour was sometimes overt and at other times covert. She would not greet me, say hello, and at times would barely acknowledge my existence.

As a graduate midwife I understandably needed a lot of support — especially in the birthing suite — and I did not receive support from Beatrice in the way that I needed to learn and safely care for my patients. She would seem irritated when I would ask a question or for help, would not make eye contact with me, and would come into a room when assistance was required and act unprofessionally, seemingly annoyed that she had to help. She made her displeasure very obvious to the patient and her family.

On several occasions Beatrice spoke to me in a hostile way in the hallway of the birthing suite in front of other staff, accusing me of something that I did not actually do.

I began to feel increasingly anxious working with Beatrice. I was terrified to ask for support when I needed it. I felt humiliated and belittled by her cold and unfriendly attitude towards me. I was concerned that the dynamic could result in unsafe patient care, as she seemed resistant to assisting and giving support to ensure my patients were well taken care of.

Beatrice didn’t seem to like her job and was also not kind or caring toward patients. I noticed she treated other junior staff like this, but they were too afraid to speak up. I worried about going to work. The situation began to negatively preoccupy my state of mind outside of working hours. I had to literally force myself to ask Beatrice when I was unsure of something.

I knew it was not right to feel this way at a time when my learning experience was meant to be a positive one. I was worried the situation would begin impacting my mental health in a negative way, so I sought the advice of a supportive educator. They encouraged me to put in a formal complaint to HR.

I was terrified to do it! I knew Beatrice would find out I had complained about her, and I was concerned about how it would then affect us working together. At the same time, I knew if I didn’t do something that the behaviour would continue and other midwives who came after me in their graduate year would be subjected to her bullying.

I made a formal complaint, and it was investigated by HR. Eventually Beatrice was stood down temporarily from her role as an ANUM. I don’t know what other actions were taken as of course it was confidential between Beatrice and upper management but it appeared that there were a range of changes made.

I felt empowered by the experience and was relieved my complaint was taken seriously. I did not have to work with the bully again with her being my manager, and this made my work less stressful.

I encourage anyone experiencing bullying to speak up. It is important for your health and wellbeing — workplace bullying is not OK.
A shared experience

Rachel’s experience isn’t uncommon. Workplace bullying is not an infrequent occurrence in the healthcare sector. A 2016 report by Worksafe Australia found that there was a 9.7% rate of workers in all industries across the country experienced bullying. The report showed that people working in the health and community sector experienced the second highest incidence of bullying of all industries in Australia. 14.3% of health and community services workers experienced bullying nationwide during 2014–15. 

Bullying and harassment is not a new phenomenon in nursing. It is embedded in our history. Some studies have found that the rate of bullying in nursing is a high as 30%, with other studies finding the percentage to be 50–72%. Students and junior nurses are often targeted and are bullied more often than more experienced nurses. Clearly, this is a problem that may have significant and detrimental impact on health, wellbeing, and retention.

Possible impacts

Bullying may have a devastating and damaging impact on nurses, midwives and students and has been linked to general mental health problems, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), burnout, psychosomatic symptoms, burnout, and physical health issues such as cardiovascular problems.

A 2016 report into bullying in the health sector by the Victorian Auditor General’s office found that nurses and midwives who are the victims of bullying can experience: 

  • a loss of self-esteem

  • feelings of isolation

  • deteriorating relationships with colleagues, friends and families

  • thoughts of suicide and 

  • financial impacts. 

Nurses and midwives who have experienced bullying are more likely to consider leaving or actually leave the profession, have reduced work performance, increased time off work and a negative impact on patient safety outcomes. It is important that reports of workplace bullying, and harassment are taken seriously, and the impacts are not underestimated.

If you’ve experienced or witnessed bullying and would like to discuss the situation, we can help you assess your options for reporting or just offer a sympathetic ear. Give Nurse & Midwife Support a call on 1800 667 877 or email a support request

(*All names have been changed to protect privacy)