Bullying in the Nurseplace: How to Stop Eating Our Own Right Now

Updated on July 17, 2019
Deb Vesco Roberts profile image

As an obstetrical RN of 27 years, I have a ton of insight to share. I hope this article is insightful for current and future nurses.


Nurses Can Be the Worst Bullies

Bullying happens when someone in the workplace repeatedly behaves unreasonably towards another person or group of people. Bullying can be intentional, unintentional, and even habitual in nature. 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 27-year experience as an RN, I've been bullied on at least six occasions. I can attest being the victim of bullying is 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 almost enough to make me want to give it up.

I've had major lessons in tolerance, vulnerability, and mental toughness throughout my career as a result of bullying. Being a nurse can be thankless and gut-wrenching on its own without dreading going to work. Being mistreated robs you of the joy that should come with having a career you value.

Nurses are expected to be selfless, compassionate beings and "do no harm" applies to nurses as well as doctors. Despite the stellar reputation for which nurse's are known 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".

One of the first phrases a nursing student learns is “nurses eat their young." This was first used by nursing professor emeritus, Judith Meissner, of Bucks County Community College, in 1986. 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.

People may think nurses are only bullied by stressed-out, overworked, doctors. While this may be true and unacceptable, most nurses are bullied by their own coworkers and quite often, their managers. Bullying and harassment can be extremely harmful and have a negative effect on the nurse's health, as well as his or her performance, both individually and as a team.

From our very first day of nursing school, we are 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 are in this profession together and should stand united, but instead, many compete, berate, manipulate, and gossip about one another with judgment and lack of empathy, generally for their own gain, competition, or to maintain a position of power.

We know people are often difficult and have varying perspectives. Some may be impossible to be around for a number of factors, whether it be a negative attitude, problems at home, or positions of authority, but that does not justify the act of bullying others, ever.

Some of My Co-worker's Experiences with Bullying

"I remember what drove me away from my passion; one of my co-workers blaming me at the nurse's station for an outcome. Bullying destroys the heart, soul, and spirit of those suffering it".

"The system fails us. The bullies seem to always win. I have reported the worst of worst behaviors over the years. Time after time, the bullies, or those who practiced inappropriate behaviors, continued to thrive in their positions. I have cried many tears and often wanted to turn my car around and go home, as I pulled into the workplace I loved so dearly".

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


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 is talking over you with complaints and criticisms, particularly during a meeting or in the presence of others, ask him or her what they recommend instead. I'll bet you will hear crickets and others will get to witness their behavior and reaction. The more people who see a bully's actions, the more support you'll have. You probably are not their only victim.
  • Tell the bully the behavior you're seeing and avoid name-calling or labeling, such as "you're mean, nasty, or manipulative to me". This will only fuel the bully's fire further.
  • Tell the bully exactly how his or her behavior is affecting your work life, especially your ability to care for patients because they perceive you as being in a bad mood or uncaring towards them.
  • 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 quite valuable should you need to take any future legal action.
  • Tell the bully that you'll no longer tolerate his or her behaviors towards you. You don't have to reveal your action plan ie. documentation, counseling with your manager or human resources department, or even reports filed with local authorities.
  • If the bully violates your space, call him or her out.
  • Research and understand your company's policies and procedures on bullying and harassment, as well as the organization's values and grievance policies.
  • Remind the bully that he or she is not fostering a patient-centered environment if focused on 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 Nurses From Being Bullied

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 institutions' chain of command and the appropriate phone numbers for reporting bullying behaviors. Always remember, you are never alone and bullying in the nurseplace is taken seriously.

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 should not be silent and make a stand to preserve the safety and dignity of our great profession.

Feel free to share your own experiences with nurseplace bullying in the comments below.

Have You Ever Been a Victim of Nurseplace Bullying?

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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.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Debra Roberts


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      • Deb Vesco Roberts profile imageAUTHOR

        Debra Roberts 

        3 months ago from Ohio

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

      • profile image

        Lindsay Brown 

        3 months ago

        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.

      • profile image


        7 months ago

        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...

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        7 months ago from UK

        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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