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Bullying in the Nurseplace: How to Stop Eating Our Own

As an obstetrical RN of 30 years, I have much insight to share with fellow nurses and new moms.

Nurses eat their young. Is this true?

Nurses eat their young. Is this true?

Nurses Can Be the Worst Bullies

Bullying happens when someone in the workplace repeatedly behaves unreasonably towards another person or group. Bullying can be intentional, unintentional, and even habitual. As if working long, short-staffed shifts, witnessing traumas, complex patients, and missed meals aren't stressful enough, we have nurseplace bullying at the forefront.

In my 30-year time as an RN, I've experienced bullying and it’s a very defeating and damaging experience. Being a nurse is one of the best choices I've made. But not feeling accepted or even safe in the workplace was nearly enough to make me want to give up m my practice.

In retrospect, I’ve learned a lot an about tolerance, vulnerability, and ” how to take the hits” due to bullying. Being a nurse can be thankless and rough on its own without the anticipated dread of another day at work. Persistent mistreatment can rob you of the joy that comes with having a valued career.

Folks expects nurses to be selfless, compassionate beings—and "do no harm" applies to both nurses and doctors. Nurses are known for their stellar reputation, but behind the curtain lies a culture of gossip, name-calling, hazing, and manipulation. The American Nurse's Association (ANA) defines bullying as:

“repeated, unwanted harmful actions intended to humiliate, offend, and cause distress in the recipient,” is an extremely serious issue that threatens patient safety, nurse safety and sanity, and the reputation of the nursing profession as a whole. The ANA also states that "nurses are required to “create an ethical environment and culture of civility and kindness, treating colleagues, coworkers, employees, students, and others with dignity and respect”. Similarly, nurses must be afforded the same level of respect and dignity as others. Thus, the nursing profession will no longer tolerate violence of any kind from any source".

At least 86% of nurses have been bullied, according to a 2017 poll conducted by RNNetwork. 45% have been verbally harassed or bullied by other nurses, while 41% have been verbally harassed or bullied by managers or administrators. Nursing instructors should prepare and educate nursing students about the bullying they could likely experience in their future nursing practice.

Bullying and harassment can be highly harmful and negatively affect the nurse's health and performance, both individually and as a team. People may think that only doctors bully nurses. While this may be true and unacceptable, most nurses experience bullying from their coworkers and, quite often, their managers.

From our first day of nursing school, we're taught to practice unconditional compassion, respect, and advocacy for our patients. How are we, as nurses, expected to uphold this mission if we can't do the same for our own? Nurses should stand united. Still, many compete, criticize, manipulate, and gossip about one another with judgment and lack of empathy, generally for their gain, competition, or to maintain a position of power.

We know people are often complicated and have varying perspectives. Some are impossible to be around, whether a negative attitude, problems at home, or positions of authority; however, none justify the act of bullying others, ever.

Bullying can seriously impact a nurse's ability to do their job well.

Bullying can seriously impact a nurse's ability to do their job well.

Types of Bullying Behaviors

Bullying behavior may involve any of the following:

  • Aggressive or intimidating conduct
  • Belittling or humiliating comments
  • Spreading rumors
  • Teasing or joking
  • Sabotaging or preventing the target's success
  • Criticism or holding to impossible standards
  • Exclusion from after-work social events
  • Overt rudeness
  • Ghosting or ignoring
  • "Gate-keeping" - withholding information that prevents the success of others
  • Unreasonable work expectations or unfair assignments
  • Refusing to help or assist with work tasks
  • Inappropriate social media posts or comments
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How to Stop Nurseplace Bullying

Bullies generally don't stop bullying on their own. You must "take the bully by the horns" and be courageous. It's easier said than done, but the goal is to take away the bully's power over you.

  • Kill the bully with kindness. You could say, "I'm sorry you're having a rough day," smile, and move along about your business.
  • If the bully talks over you with criticisms or in the presence of others, ask what they'd recommend. I'll bet you'll hear crickets, and others will witness their behavior and reactions. The more people see a bully's actions, the more support you'll have. You probably aren't their only victim.
  • Tell the bully the behaviors you see and avoid name-calling or labeling, such as "you're mean, nasty, or manipulative," as this further fuels the bully's fire.
  • Tell the bully how their behavior affects your work life, especially your ability to care for patients, as they perceive you as in a bad mood or uncaring.
  • If the bullying occurs in email, social media posts, private messages, or texts, save a copy and document all incidents in the order they occurred. This proof will be valuable should you need to take any future legal action.
  • Tell the bully that you'll no longer tolerate their behaviors towards you. You needn't reveal your action plan, i.e., documentation, counseling with your manager or human resources department, or reports filed with local authorities.
  • If the bully violates your space, call them out.
  • Research and understand your company's policies and procedures on bullying and harassment and the organization's values and grievance policies.
  • Remind the bully that they are not fostering a patient-centered environment when targeting others.
  • Be positive, confident, and assertive. Hold your head high and relax your face and body. Don't grimace, slouch or let them see they're upsetting you.

How Managers Can Prevent Bullying

When one assumes a leadership role, they can no longer sit back and do nothing and must treat everyone equally across the board. Approaches managers can take to decrease nurseplace bullying include:

  • Provide longer orientation periods to new graduates or any nurse who isn't experienced in that particular specialty. A one-sized orientation doesn't fit all and everyone learns at a different pace.
  • Provide the new nurse or orientee with more than one preceptor/mentor so he or she can learn different techniques and perspectives and prevent burnout. Precepting new nurses can be a thankless and tiring task.
  • Refrain from favoritism and exclusion with your staff.
  • Don't expect new graduates to have the performance and knowledge of those who are experienced in the field.
  • Provide more autonomy to the nursing staff, giving them more accountability and control over their jobs and decrease the likelihood of aggression and oppression.
  • Create a culture of respect and have an open-door policy that allows the new nurse a safe and confidential place to report bullying or harassing activity.
  • Encourage all staff to support the new nurses and report any witnessed bullying behavior; either directly or anonymously and have them be sure to document the date, time, location, any witnesses, and what was said or done.
  • Hold the bullying nurse accountable for his or her actions to prevent behaviors from continuing.

Preventing and reporting bullying and harassment is everyone’s responsibility, not just the victim. If you see something, say something.

Call to Action Against Nurseplace Bullying

Putting a stop to and reporting bullying is everyone's responsibility. If you see something, say something before things get out of hand, or someone gets hurt. Know your institution's chain of command and the appropriate phone numbers for reporting bullying behaviors. Remember, you're never alone, and bullying in the nurseplace is serious.

To help raise awareness and stop nurseplace bullying, please share this article on Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, or even a printed copy on your nurseplace bulletin board. We shouldn't be silent and must make a stand to preserve the safety and dignity of our great profession.

Please share your experiences with bullying and respond to the poll.

This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2019 Debra Roberts


Maria B. RN on April 01, 2020:

I wish the person who precepted me during my residency was taught this. It occurred during my 3rd month. It totally made me feel incompetent and was ready to be done with nursing all together because I was made to feel stupid. Once I was on my own I would always beat myself up wondering if I was doing the right thing. Needless to say I continued there for 9 long horrific months and hated my job. At the end of my shift almost every time I would have a patient thank me and to never stop what I'm doing. I know God was trying to tell me something. A dear friend told me Hospice was hiring and was hired there. Been there almost 4 years now but it still took me a long time to get my confidence back. I now precept and love it and only try to build the new nurse up instead of tearing them down. Thank you for sharing this Deb Vesco Roberts

Sara Green on October 09, 2019:

Unfortunately, this is so true. My youngest sister just left a dream job due to bullying. She worked so hard to earn her degree and landed a great job at her dream hospital but couldn’t handle how her coworkers treated her and how ineffective HR was.

Erica (The Prepping Wife) on October 01, 2019:

My mother was a nurse, and I saw a ton of this happening over the years. I couldn't figure out why that environment seemed so dramatic and toxic. But it really is. Maybe because nurses spend so much time dealing with nasty patients with a smile that they burn themselves out and have nothing left for coworkers? That's the best explanation for the horrible behavior that I can think of. As you said, it really is a thankless job.

Kara on September 30, 2019:

This is awful to read about. I hope things get better in the workplace for nurses.

Vicki Patton on September 30, 2019:

I love the tips you gave for dealing with a workplace bully especially the one about calling out the behaviors without name-calling. It is important to speak up to that person. Just imagine if everyone did that. Who would they be able to bully if no one is engaging with them in the way they want but instead the focus is back on them and their inappropriate behavior?

Luna S on September 30, 2019:

I completely agree with you! I work directly with nurses/CNA's and they are brutal to each other, we've had tons of people quit because they are being bullied or treated poorly by the long term staff.

Live Well Choose Joy on September 29, 2019:

Nurses are so important and do such an important job, this is so sad to hear how much this happens. Thank you for sharing the awareness of this!

Despite Pain on September 29, 2019:

86% - that is ridiculously high, isn't it? I hate bullying of any type, but I had no idea that it was so widespread amongst the nursing community. Well done for speaking out. More people need to do that.

Lyosha on September 28, 2019:

I bad nurse is horrid especially for elderly people! And unfortunately I have seen too many bullies among them. your post is great input on the topic

daphne Takahashi on September 28, 2019:

great post! we do need more awareness about bullying in the work place! because it damages the person career as well it's self-esteem! it's horrible not to feel safe doing what you love

Sushmita on September 28, 2019:

Workplace bullying is one of the most untalked about! I am glad you have opened up and talked about it. I am sorry to hear about it though :(

Gina (Love, Auntie) on September 28, 2019:

UGH! This is horrible. I'm so sorry. It's so ironic too, as nurses can be the most comforting, kind people. I'm so glad you are voicing this and making you readers aware!

Kelly Martin on September 28, 2019:

I didn’t realise that bullying was so common amongst nurses. I’m sorry to hear that you’ve been bullied at work. I love your idea of using kindness as a response to the bullies.

Debra Roberts (author) from Ohio on April 26, 2019:

Isn't is truly sad that we are bullied by our own team? Most of the time, our patients are thankful and kind.

Lindsay Brown on April 26, 2019:

This was a very interesting and informative article. Although Ive heard of the bullying of nurses, to be 100% truthful, I always assumed that the bullying was coming from their patients.

After reading your article, I see how wrong I was!

Good for you for clarifying and bringing this important issue to light.

Becky on January 15, 2019:

Deb, you have written a very poignant article once again. Please continue to write and educate our own. Nursing is a wonderful profession! Our Nation needs those caring and compassionate people to step up and be confident that if they offer a helping hand it will not be bitten off in the process...

Liz Westwood from UK on January 14, 2019:

Bullying in the work place is sadly all too common. This is a shocking and sobering article to hear how much it occurs in a profession called to be compassionate towards others.

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