Outcry from student midwives over bullying “rife in our Irish hospitals”

Reports of unfair treatment are growing amongst midwifery and nursing students on placement following new online anti-bullying campaign

Trinity student midwives are among the Health Service Executive (HSE) workers reporting bullying and mistreatment in hospitals following the publication of an Irish Times article interviewing the Facebook support group for mistreated workers, ‘Bullied By The HSE’.

Speaking to Trinity News, a spokesperson for the Bullied By The HSE group explained that a “significant amount” of new reports of bullying have been submitted to the page in recent days since the article was published, with approximately 30 verified accounts of mistreatment and several more undergoing the verification process.

“There are many forms of bullying coming across, from putting people down, to verbal and even physical abuse,” the group explains. “The main theme is probably the fact that reporting complaints is very difficult and [other] workers often victimised the complainant afterwards.”

Bullied By The HSE describe their objective as “to rid the HSE of the bullying that is rife in our Irish hospitals”. Following publication of the Irish Times article, the group posted that due to a “high increase in messages over the past couple of days”, administrators were working “behind the scenes all the time” in order to handle the increase in reports.  

Speaking to Trinity News, Emma, the administrator of a similar private peer support group explains that on work placement there is “an absolute culture of not listening” to student midwives that are critical to the system.

“They’d listen to you for five minutes then shut you up, whether it was bullying or something else. ‘Fake it until you make it,’ they say. Nobody seems to want to take responsibility for the issue,” says Emma.

Speaking on how the influx of recent reports has been received by her peer support group, Emma notes: “What struck me was when I put up the article from the Times, there were a lot of comments beneath it. 90% were employed midwives who were commenting and 90% seemed to be from Trinity.”

Recalling more of her own experience, Emma told Trinity News about one of the incidents she encountered on placement: “My supervising midwife was running two labour rooms, and I was running one of the rooms as her student. I went into ask for help but she was in a situation herself. So I went and asked for help from another senior midwife. Subsequently the supervising midwife was so angry that I had sought help from somewhere else, obviously feeling it undermined her ability to care for two women at once. She berated me in front of a woman who had just given birth who was holding her baby in her arms. It took everything for me not to cry. To be honest I would class what I went through as mild to what I have seen other students and midwives experience.”

Talking of the attitude towards student midwives on placement in general, Emma said that “humiliation seemed acceptable as a culture, and the more people you could be humiliated in front of, the better”. Having facilitated on the support page and pointing to research into the prevalence of bullying both in Ireland and internationally, she worries for the safety of future midwives going into their placement. “My fear is, ‘Do we have to wait for someone to do something before we take action?’”

Speaking to Trinity News on the condition of anonymity, former Trinity student midwife Susan discussed her own experience of bullying on placement which included extreme verbal abuse.

“They tore me to pieces, they really did,” says Susan. Describing how the other midwives would intimidate her, Susan said: “I was stared at until I left the office. Anytime I asked a question, I was reprimanded and told that I should know that.”

Mary, another student midwife, reports being hyper-scrutinised while writing patient notes on a computer. “[The supervising midwife] would ask me to write a note, would tell me to print it out and then read it out to me, and any mistake, a misplaced comma or full stop, or even word order, and she would rip up the note in front of me. Instead of going over the draft with me on the computer, she would make me print it off again and again. If I asked her to look over it, she’d say ‘Just do it the way I tell you to do it.’”

Incidents like these have been abundant according to multiple studies in recent years. 2015 saw the publication of a report by Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) claiming 60% of student midwives had experienced bullying while on placement. The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) published a report the following year finding that half of student nurses and midwives across the country have experienced bullying or harassment during placements.

Trinity’s Faculty of Health Sciences Quality Report 2016 states: “While the survey and report highlighted negative outcomes, the Faculty considers its engagement with the Students’ Union after receipt of the report as an example of best practice on how to address significant student issues.” Results included a new “Dignity at Work” policy introduced across the HSE, anti-bullying strategies, and support to allow students to come forward with any issues.

However, Bullied By The HSE are adamant these measures aren’t enough to address the ongoing bullying of student midwives on placement, which has been increasingly unveiled in recent days. “The HSE sent around a press release on bullying a couple of weeks ago…Our group has rang several of the numbers [provided] randomly. One is a dental apps office. One number not in use. One number they have moved offices and another hasn’t been in function for a few years. The HSE are not making efforts to establish and deal with bullying. It may look good on paper in their Dignity at Work policy but that isn’t the case.”

Speaking to Trinity News, Dr Jo Murphy-Lawless, sociologist and co-author of Untangling the Maternity Crisis says bullying in midwifery “is a problem across many countries internationally”.

Murphy-Lawless notes that research done in the UK has shown that bullying staff is not only problematic for fellow co-workers, but is a safety issue for patients. “The Department of Health and Children and the HSE have failed to get to grips with this mass of problems in any way definitively,” says Murphy-Lawless. “We have no reports in Ireland comparable to the [aforementioned] Francis Report, Freedom to Speak Up. Such a review is badly needed.”

Having dealt with bullying at an institutional level, organisational consultant Anne McCarthy says the impact on the individual can be “very stark”, noting a link between bullying and increased absence from work. “Whether this absence is due to poor mental health or to avoid the experience is unclear,” explains McCarthy. She describes that the bullying also has a “toxic” effect on the organisation as a whole, as it leads to “decreased productivity, creativity and trust”.

Worse, McCarthy outlines, is the state in which it can leave the victim. “These are very bright people but they’re sometimes driven into this regressed state. They often become almost infantile and dependent.”

While supports are often in place, McCarthy explained that if they are not properly implemented and supported at every level of the organisation, new policies are in vain. “The people who speak out, they’re attacked. They’re made a scapegoat. They get bullied by the initial individual, and then the group dynamic is changed to isolate the victim even more. The dynamic forces a survival instinct onto the other group members and then the individual being bullied is further isolated.”

Sam Cox

Sam Cox is the current Assistant Features Editor of Trinity News. He is a Senior Fresh Psychology student, and a former Features Editor.