Addressing Bullying in Nursing

Workplace bullying is a significant problem in all professions, and nursing is no exception. Nurses who bully other nurses create a negative environment and may cause substantial unnecessary stress to others, not to mention possible harm to patients. Experiencing bullying at work can affect your morale and may even cause you to resent your job or your coworkers. By recognizing what workplace bullying looks like, you can take a proactive stance against it, help protect yourself and create a more positive work environment.

What Is Workplace Bullying?

Bullying can take many different forms. The bully can mock or tease another person, try to make them feel inadequate, or be deliberately mean or offensive. Some bullies try to harm others or destroy their reputations. People who are bullied may feel abused and unable to respond to the abuse or stop it from happening.

Sometimes, more experienced nurses bully newer nurses, young nurses bully older nurses, or established groups of nurses bully new coworkers. One nurse, or a group of nurses, may bully others because of their appearance, personal beliefs, background or other characteristics. While many people already know bullying is wrong, workplace bullies may believe their actions are justified. This insensitivity or lack of awareness can make bullying more difficult to manage.

Bullies mistreat others for a variety of reasons. Bullying can make people feel better about themselves or compensate for feelings of inadequacy. For some nurses, bullying behavior is part of a hazing ritual — they believe that new nurses need to “pay their dues” to the profession. Some bullies fear competition from others, are concerned about changes created by newcomers, or believe their bullying actions are harmless bonding experiences for the team. Pressure and stress from management can also contribute to bullying, as the bullies try to find their own way to respond to these demands. Knowing the reasons can help nurses understand some of the motivations behind bullying. It is important to remember, though, that there is no valid reason for bullying and no one deserves to be bullied.

How to Address Bullying

Nurses can be proactive by implementing prevention strategies. Education about the warning signs of bullying and how to appropriately manage bullying behavior can help nursing teams understand how to recognize and prevent it. Bullying behavior should be banned in employee conduct codes, and departments should have clear reporting methods for nurses who may be experiencing bullying from coworkers or management. Nurses in management and leadership positions should be aware that signs of depression, anxiety and a desire to leave nursing may mean that a nurse is experiencing bullying. At work, leaders should encourage nurses to report suspected bullying and be ready to investigate every report without penalizing nurses for speaking up.

It is your responsibility as a professional to promote a positive work environment for yourself and others. If you experience bullying, you should carefully consider your options. If you witness bullying, you may be able to intervene or report the incident. Nurses who recognize the signs of bullying in their own behavior should carefully reconsider their actions. You should strive to contribute positively to your workplace.

You may want to confront bullies and inform them that their behavior is inappropriate, although you should do so cautiously. If you feel unsafe confronting them directly, it may be best to go directly to management. Try, as best you can, to speak in a professional tone. If they continue their bullying behavior, you can inform them that you will be reporting their actions to management.

Advice From Real Nurses

Aundrea Eilers, an RN at UnityPoint Health Hospital in Des Moines, IA, says that sometimes bullying can be passive aggressive. Some bullies decide not to help other nurses and instead create roadblocks to prevent others from thriving. Eilers experienced this early in her career and eventually changed jobs to find a more positive environment. She loves where she works now.

Eilers recommends that nurses seek allies and try to build positive relationships with their coworkers to help themselves survive bullies.

“I would tell new nurses to find at least one person they can trust to help them learn. I think having someone you can trust and ask questions is really important,” she added. “Don’t hesitate to talk to management about how things are going.”

Amber Fisher, an RN at the Providence Sacred Heart and Holy Family hospitals in Spokane, Washington, agrees with Eilers’ suggestion that nurses seek out help when dealing with bullies.

“My biggest piece of advice is to just speak up … Tell someone when you’re uncomfortable with your assignment, ask all the stupid questions you can think of, [and] don’t be afraid to ask because the consequences of making a big mistake are far greater than the fear of thinking a more senior nurse is going to make fun of you,” Fisher suggested.

As a nursing student, Fisher experienced bullying from nurses who were supposed to be helping her learn. She frequently heard from others that “nurses eat their young” and that she should expect a certain amount of mistreatment. During these experiences, Fisher learned to become her own advocate and speak up whenever she needed to. She says nurses, especially new nurses, should stay humble and teachable but prepare to advocate for themselves.

Bullying can be a significant problem in many workplaces, so nurses should be aware of how to recognize, prevent and respond to it. Bullies may have a variety of different motivations for their behavior, but it is still wrong to mistreat another person. Education and willingness to proactively respond to bullying can help prevent and eliminate it. All nurses, including managers and leaders, should understand and appropriately respond to bullying to help create and maintain a professional work environment.

Learn more about the CSUSM online RN to BSN program.


Nursing Times: Bullying in Nursing and Ways of Dealing With It

Scrubs Magazine: How Do I Deal With Nurse Bullies?

Eilers, Aundrea. Personal Interview. February 8, 2017.

Fisher, Amber. Personal Interview. February 16, 2017.

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