Neurology trainee goes public on bullying in medical profession

By Michael Woodhead

5 Nov 2020

A neurology trainee has gone public to highlight the culture of bullying and harassment in the profession, saying it continues to be pervasive despite policies promoting ‘zero tolerance’.

Dr Kate Johnson has told the ABC she is taking a break from her training, saying she has become emotionally exhausted after trying to tackle bullying culture head on.

She cites examples of where she was publicly humiliated by senior staff for making mistakes, then ostracised when she took issue with the inappropriate behaviour.

“As junior doctors, we are often taught it is easier to grit our teeth and move on to the next job than to challenge perpetrators and face the consequences,” she told the broadcaster.

“But there comes a point in time where simply “toughing it out” isn’t an option anymore.”

Dr Johnson said the zero tolerance policies adopted by workplaces and training colleges had made no difference to entrenched culture of bullying

“Cultural change requires active engagement from senior doctors, who in some instances are the bullies. In other instances, they are longstanding friends with bullies, they are too exhausted by their workload, or they lack the skills to instigate real cultural change within their own sphere of influence,” she said.

Dr Johnson, who is founder of Doctors are Human, says she decided to continue fighting against bullying after losing friends and colleagues to suicide over the issue

“This culture cannot be tackled by policy change alone. The powerful need to be given positive examples of better leadership. Supervisors need to be held accountable for bad behaviour. We need diversity in leadership,” she said.

On her ‘Doctors are Human’ site Dr Johnson writes about the reluctance to speak up among junior doctors who feel burned out, because of a culture of fear and having weaknesses used against them.

“Surrounded by my colleagues at ANZAN, I immediately felt overwhelmed. Look at all of these doctors, young and old, chatting cheerfully, laughing and acting like neurology is the passion of their life,” she wrote.

“Tired, burnt out and struggling to imagine myself as a neurologist, or as anything really,  … I couldn’t bring myself up to chatting with influential professors with my “good behaviour” on.”

Dr Johnson said many junior doctors feel forced to put on a facade of enthusiasm and competence at work, which makes it harder for those who struggle, to seek help.

“We put up with bullying and at times, inhumane conditions for a career. How hard it must be for those of us who work this hard for so long, then turn around and walk away?”

“Talking to friends away from the bright lights of sponsorship stalls showed me that many of us struggle silently. Many of my friends admit burn out. Others had periods in their career where they considered quitting and becoming something else altogether!”

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