Intimidation, sexual harassment and racial abuse are daily occurrences in an NHS under pressure to treat more patients within tough financial limits, the Royal College of Nursing said.
But nurses choose to suffer in silence out of fear that if they complain they will be stigmatised for bringing their NHS trust into disrepute.
New guidelines issued yesterday by the RCN urged nurses to report cases of harassment, which are mostly perpetrated by colleagues rather than patients, and to require NHS managers to deal with them.
Even when staff complain of harassment, cases are frequently dismissed as personality clashes, the College said.
One hospital nurse described how she and seven colleagues were abused and physically harassed over a 12-month period by a bad-tempered consultant who treated them with ill- concealed contempt.
Speaking to reporters at the College's annual conference in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, the nurse said: "He was a macho consultant who would come into the hospital in a bad mood in the morning wanting certain people to work for him and if he was denied his way he took to verbally abusing us and would push us out of the way. One morning we decided we had had enough and all sat in the coffee-room and refused to work for him."
The consultant was later transferred to another trust.
A community nurse described how she and 10 colleagues were bullied over 18 months by two nursing sisters. Even though her post was senior to theirs, she found herself unable to sleep, she cried easily and took to driving round in her car to avoid going into the office. "They were constantly undermining, belittling and putting you down. They withheld information, disrupted meetings and would ignore you as if you weren't there."
She left the job and complained, but management dismissed it as a personality clash. A year later, the two sisters were disciplined and dismissed. Tom Bolger, assistant general secretary of the RCN, said that although bullying was endemic in all organisations, nurses were especially liable to be picked on.
Calls to nurse counselling services were increasing indicating that victimisation of nurses was growing. But Mr Bolger said it was possible nurses were starting to identify abrasive management as bullying. "It reflects the impression I have had that things are getting worse," he said. In a questionnaire conducted for the RCN's journal, Nursing Standard, more than half the 380 nurses who replied said they had been bullied and a quarter said that they had suffered sexual harassment.Reuse content