Bullying among Medical Professionals: Is Bullying by-product of medical identity?

by Gülşah Kurt (Project Intern 2016)

Bullying is quite common phenomenon in medical education. More than one in three of the doctors report that they have been bullied at least once ( Quine, L., 2002) and bullying by a senior surgeon was the focus of recent media attention in Australia.

Why is bullying so pervasive among medical professionals? Traditional explanations of bullying have emphasised the personal characteristics of either bullies or victims, but recent work on bullying in the playground suggests that bullying is a much more complicated social phenomenon involving diverse roles (victim, bully, bully reinforcer, bully’s assistant, victim defender, and outsider; Salmivalli, 2010) and identities (Jones, Livingstone & Manstead, 2017).

When we try to explain bullying in the context of medical profession, it may be helpful to think about how these roles, and also the nature of medical professional identity formation are implicated in the practice and experience of bullying.

Being a member of the ‘medical profession’ provides an important social identity and a range of associated behaviours as norms. The meaning of bullying behaviours and other associated roles might need to be considered both in terms of the culture of specific institutions, but also how it has come to function in the broader tradition.

For example, even if bullying has negative consequences such as depression, and drop out among medical professionals, some are reluctant to speak about being bullied or seeing others being bullied. Helen Schultz, Melbourne psychiatrist and a mentor of doctors in training said that the underrepresentation of bullying is caused by fear of losing jobs and reprisals. Actually, there might be additional reasons for this. For some it may also be linked to their strong identification with their medical identity, perhaps changing the way they might otherwise interpret the bullying going on around them. If this is so, then a focus just on the individuals involved will not change the fundamentals that continue to reinforce bullying in the workplace.

Jones, S. E., Livingstone, A. G., & Manstead, A. S. (2017). Bullying and Belonging: Social Identity on the Playground.

Quine, L. (2002). Workplace bullying in junior doctors: Questionnaire survey. Bmj,  324(7342), 878-879. doi:10.1136/bmj.324.7342.878

Salmivalli, C. (2010). Bullying and the peer group: A review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 15, 112-120.