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

Updated on October 2, 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.

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One of the first phrases a nursing student learns is that "nurses eat their young." was first used by nursing professor Judith Meissner in 1986. At least 85% of nurses have been bullied, according to research.

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. 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 experienced bullying 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 significant 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. Although the stellar reputation for which nurses 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".

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 stressed-out, overworked, doctors only bully nurses. While this may be true and unacceptable, most nurses experience bullying by their coworkers and quite often, their managers. Bullying and harassment can be extremely harmful with 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 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.

Source

Some of My Co-worker's Experiences with Bullying

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

"The system fails us. The bullies seem always to 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 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 only fuels the bully's fire further.
  • Tell the bully how his or her behavior affects your work life, especially your ability to care for patients as they perceive you 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 his or her behaviors towards you. You needn't reveal your action plan; i.e., 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 when they are 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.

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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'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.

Feel free to share your own experiences with nurseplace bullying in the comments below and respond to the poll below regarding your experience with nurseplace bullying.

Have You Ever Been a Victim of Nurseplace Bullying?

See results

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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      • profile image

        Sara Green 

        8 weeks ago

        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.

      • profile image

        Erica (The Prepping Wife) 

        2 months ago

        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.

      • profile image

        Kara 

        2 months ago

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

      • profile image

        Vicki Patton 

        2 months ago

        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?

      • profile image

        Luna S 

        2 months ago

        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.

      • profile image

        Live Well Choose Joy 

        2 months ago

        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!

      • profile image

        Despite Pain 

        2 months ago

        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.

      • profile image

        Lyosha 

        2 months ago

        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

      • profile image

        daphne Takahashi 

        2 months ago

        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

      • profile image

        Sushmita 

        2 months ago

        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 :(

      • profile image

        Gina (Love, Auntie) 

        2 months ago

        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!

      • profile image

        Kelly Martin 

        2 months ago

        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.

      • Deb Vesco Roberts profile imageAUTHOR

        Debra Roberts 

        7 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 

        7 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

        Becky 

        10 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 

        10 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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