MORE than 500 official complaints of bullying have been raised by doctors, nurses and others working in Scotland's NHS over the past five years.

BMA Scotland said the figures were likely to be the tip of the iceberg as staff are often too scared to speak up for fear of being sidelined or blacklisted as a troublemaker.

It comes after previous research by the trade union indicated that four in 10 doctors considered workplace bullying to be a problem in their departments, and the recent Sturrock Report into an alleged bullying culture in NHS Highland which found that many staff had suffered "serious harm and trauma".

Figures gathered under freedom of information by BMA Scotland found that a total of 562 complaints relating to bullying and/or harassment had been raised by NHS Scotland employees in the past five years, either through grievance or dignity at work procedures.

READ MORE: How bullying is used to silence NHS whisleblowers 

The findings will be unveiled today as BMA Scotland's new chair Dr Lewis Morrison makes his inaugural address to the BMA’s Annual Representative Meeting in Belfast.

Dr Morrison said pressure to meet targets was exacerbating a "blame culture" that contributes to victimisation.

He said: “The scale of the issue of bullying across our NHS has become abundantly clear in recent times. This FOI gives a further indication of the concerning number of cases raised.

"But I believe it is unlikely to show the complete picture – not least as the Sturrock review showed how hard staff currently find it to raise cases.

“For me, these figures - combined with stories that have emerged from health boards across Scotland - show that our NHS as it is currently run, with a focus on arbitrary targets that say little about quality of care, and resources stretched to breaking point, creates the kind of conditions in which bullying and inappropriate behaviour becomes rife.

"This should never excuse individual behaviours. There is always room for kindness, compassion and decent behaviour, no matter how busy or pressured we are.

"Indeed, such simple courtesy has been shown as vital in ensuring healthcare teams can deliver effective care.

"But understanding the environment in which bullying takes place can help indicate what we can do to make a difference – and make bullying behaviour less likely.

"For example, less of a focus on targets - and blame when they are not reached - resources that match demand, and a system that promotes a greater sense of teamwork in place of the divide between medics and management that currently exists are all steps that must be taken.”

Dr Morrison added that problems of bullying and harassment in the NHS were not new but "only now fully coming to light" as a result of the high-profile case of whistleblowing in NHS Highland.

READ MORE: Highland medics clast 'culture of fear' that is silencing concerns over patient care

The scandal erupted after four senior clinicians wrote to the Herald in September last year claiming that patient care was being jeopardised by a "culture of fear and intimidation" and "practice of suppressing criticism" that they said stemmed from the very top of the organisation.

Its leadership team has since been overhauled after the chief executive, chairman and medical director all stepped down, and the Scottish Government commissioned an independent review by Sir John Sturrock QC.

In his report in May, Mr Sturrock, a specialist mediation lawyer, said it was possible that "many hundreds" of staff had been the victims of inappropriate behaviour.

READ MORE: Sturrock review finds 'many staff suffered serious harm and trauma'

Although he stressed that it was "not possible to conclude conclusively that there is or is not a bullying culture in [NHS Highland]", he was clear that many members of staff had endured "serious harm and trauma" that had driven them to quit their jobs or retire early - with some suffering financially as a result.

Health Secretary Jeane Freeman responded by establishing a short life working group which will meet over the summer to draw up an action plan to address bullying across the NHS.

Dr Morrison said the group "must ask why the NHS in Scotland has become such fertile ground for wholly inappropriate behaviours, and then it must address the reasons head on".

It comes after MSPs yesterday backed proposals to create an Independent National Whistleblowing Officer (INMO) for Scotland. 

The role will be based within the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO) office, and will offer NHS whistleblowers the chance to have complaints investigated independently if they do not believe their concerns were properly handled by the health board. 

A Scottish Government spokesman said: "The welfare of staff in our NHS is paramount and we expect NHS boards to do everything possible to eradicate bullying in the workplace.

"The Health Secretary, in the Scottish Government’s response to the Sturrock review, set out a package of measures to support the reinforcement of positive working cultures across our health service.

"This includes convening a Ministerial-led working group which will look at what practical strategies can be put in place to ensure staff are able to work in an open, fair and supportive environment whatever their role and wherever they might be based and we look forward to working with the BMA on this."