Bullying of surgeons remains big problem in Australia, study finds

Authors: Matthew Limb 

Publication date:  19 Sep 2016

High levels of workplace bullying remain a major problem in general surgery in Australia, with consultants the worst offenders, researchers have found.

The researchers found that some surgeons may view intimidation and harassment as “functional tools in surgical education.” Their study indicates that much bullying is not formally logged.

The researchers surveyed 370 trainees and consultant surgeons and found that nearly half (47%) reported having been bullied to some degree, implying a culture of bullying within organisations. Trainees (64%) and women (57%) experienced the most bullying, and consultants were the most common source of bullying of trainees and other consultants.

Two thirds (68%) of trainees and consultants had witnessed the bullying of other surgical colleagues in the preceding 12 months, “including those who did not report being personally bullied.”

The analysis was carried out by a team from Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney, and the University of Sydney. The findings were published on 13 September in the World Journal of Surgery.[1]

The survey asked about the extent and nature of workplace bullying among 152 trainees and 218 consultants. Of the 370 participants, 117 were women and 253 men. Respondents were asked to say whether they had been exposed to any of 22 specified “negative acts” and to rate the frequency of occurrence (to some degree, weekly, or daily).

Most respondents (83%) had experienced at least one negative behaviour in the previous 12 months. But 38% experienced at least one negative behaviour on a weekly or daily basis.

Certain persistent negative behaviours represented work related bullying, the study said. The most commonly experienced were “having opinions ignored” and “being exposed to unmanageable workload.” More “overt” acts of bullying included “being humiliated or ridiculed,” “being ignored or facing hostile reaction on approach,” “being shouted at or target of spontaneous anger.”

The authors said that the levels of bullying they found were many times higher than those seen in other Australian workplaces. “Surgical trainees and consultants are significant sources of bullying behaviours towards each other,” they wrote. This reflected an “endemic” bullying culture, not just in surgery but also in the healthcare sector.

Of those who reported being bullied only 18% made a formal complaint. Most respondents who did not report bullying believed that reporting would not change the situation or would make it worse.

The authors said that the reasons for consultants being the main perpetrators were “complex.” They wrote, “It is possible that negative feedback may be construed as ‘bullying.’”

They said that efforts had been made in general surgery in Australia to “shift the culture in a positive direction” but that success was “not certain.” They said that tackling the problem would require “collaboration and hard work” and that their findings provided a baseline against which to monitor the effectiveness of anti-bullying interventions.

thebmj.com Feature Operate with respect: how Australia is confronting sexual harassment of trainees [Link]


  1. Ling M, Young CJ, Shepherd HL, Mak C, Saw RP. Workplace bullying in surgery. World J Surg  2016. [Link] [Link] .

Matthew Limb freelance journalist BMJ Careers


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