THE number bullying cases reported in Scotland’s NHS has soared by almost 50 per cent over the last five years.

New figures reveal there were 724 cases recorded over that period – with a steady rise from 126 in 2017-18 to 185 in 2021-22.

The most "startling" rises in bullying cases came in NHS Highland, where the numbers have risen from five in 2017-18 to 35 in 2021-22 and NHS Tayside, where incidents increased from 11 to 35.

Scottish Conservatives' shadow health secretary Dr Sandesh Gulhane described the figures as “deeply alarming”, given the problems with recruiting and retaining staff across Scotland’s health service which stem from the SNP’s poor workforce planning.

He also insisted it highlighted a "worrying culture in our overstretched NHS that appears to be growing on the SNP’s watch".

The increase in reports of bullying is not uniform across all Scottish health boards, however.

Over the last year, reports of bullying in NHS Borders dropped by 57% and 63% over the last five years.

Incidents of bullying in NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde were falling, but rose last year from less than five to 10.

Dr Gulhane said: “This dramatic rise in bullying cases in Scotland’s health service is deeply alarming – no one should be subjected to intimidation in the workplace.

“Workplace culture in any organisation is set at the very top – and in this case that’s individual health board bosses and, ultimately, Health Secretary Humza Yousaf.”

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Dr Gulhane said a shortage of staff is the biggest problem facing the NHS.

It comes amidst increased spending on agency nursing staff and the reliance on students across Scotland to address workforce gaps while there are increasing concerns about staff morale.

The Royal College of Nursing in Scotland have warned ministers are breaching the law on safe staffing by allowing the enlisting of students to fill gaps in nursing cover.

The RCN said the staffing crisis was posing a risk to patients and comes precisely three years after safe staffing became enshrined in law, after a First Minister promise in 2016.

A Royal College of Nursing study has found that seven in ten staff say patient care is being compromised due to low staffing levels.

The nursing workforce analysis highlighted that the ‘gap’ between the number of registered nurses required to run services and the number actually in post has been rising steadily since 2015 to a record high level of over 4,500 nurses.

Figures published by NHS Education for Scotland have shown that for the year ending March 2021, NHS Scotland spent £236m on agency and bank nursing and midwifery staff.

That's an 11.3% increase on the previous year, and when broken down, a 22.4% rise in agency staff spending and a 9.3% increase on bank staff.

The Royal College of Nursing Scotland associate director said the agency nursing rise was no surprise considering the ppressures of the coronavirus pandemic, high staff sickness absence and existing workforce vacancies.

Dr Gulhane added: “When recruitment and retention of staff is your top priority, a sharp increase in bullying cases is the last thing you need.

“There is never a justification for bullying, which can have a hugely damaging effect on the mental health of staff who have been overstretched for years and are more exhausted than ever due to the pandemic.

“Bullying can never be tolerated or covered up, as this creates a dangerous workplace environment where staff are fearful of speaking out.

“The health secretary has a duty to ensure our NHS is properly resourced and that health boards foster an open, tolerant workplace culture.”

Last week, a survey of its members by the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) revealed staff in Scotland have been “emotionally and physically battered” by the Covid-19 pandemic, with a majority considering quitting the profession.

According to the study, one in seven midwives were thinking about leaving due to low staffing levels and frustration with the quality of care they can provide.

And of the 871 midwives who responded to the survey, carried out in December last year, half told the RCM that they rarely have enough staff to provide safe care for women.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Bullying and harassment is unacceptable in any circumstances and we expect all health boards and their employees to act in line with the values and behaviours expected of everyone in NHS Scotland.

“Ministers have made clear to health boards that bullying and harassment is unacceptable, and we expect them to ensure any reported incidents are taken seriously and fully investigated. Everyone who works in our Health Service must have the confidence to raise any concerns they may have, particularly in these unprecedented and challenging times.

"The health secretary has been absolutely clear that when a whistleblower raises a concern, this must be treated with the upmost seriousness and thoroughly investigated, including any concerns about safe staffing levels and any compromise to patient safety. Each health board has dedicated whistleblowing champions to seek assurance that staff are encouraged and supported to speak up.

“We are fully aware of the difficult circumstances that boards and front-line staff are working in, which is why we have worked hard to ensure that our NHS maintains the increased numbers of staff we’ve seen over the past 10 consecutive years."

The Scottish Government said NHS Scotland staffing is at a "record high", having increased by over 4,500 in the last year and it said that funded student nurse and midwifery places have almost doubled in the last decade.

“Ministers are committed to fully supporting our NHS. The £1 billion NHS Recovery Plan, alongside £300m which was announced last winter for additional recruitment, has supported new recruitment over the last six months - including 1.000 health care support Workers and 191 international nurses," the spokesman added.