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Ask a Nurse: How to Combat Nurse Bullying in the Workplace

Updated June 17, 2022 · 6 Min Read

Although COVID-19 is at the forefront of healthcare, bullying is still a massive problem. Here’s what you should do if you experience bullying as a new nurse.
Ask a Nurse: How to Combat Nurse Bullying in the Workplace
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In our Ask a Nurse series, experienced nurses provide an insider look at the nursing profession by answering your questions about nursing careers, degrees, and resources.


Question: How do nurses combat new nurse bullying in the workplace?

You may have heard of nurses "eating their young," which refers to experienced nurses bullying or harassing newer nurses. With COVID-19 being the highest priority in healthcare, nurse bullying may not seem to be of the greatest importance, but it is still a problem in the nursing profession today.

Nurses also call new graduates "baby nurses," implying these nurses are too young or too new. Jenna Liphart Rhoads, Ph.D., nurse educator, says this phrasing leads to newer nurses feeling inexperienced and undervalued.

Unfortunately, bullying can be found throughout nursing regardless of experience. Maybe you've been bullied or witnessed it yourself. How do you deal with the situation when bullying arises?

Combating nurse bullying as a new nurse is challenging. Don't feel like you have to do it alone. Experienced nurses and nurse leaders can help combat new nurse bullying by:

  • Acknowledging it
  • Addressing it
  • Building a culture of zero tolerance

"Nurse leaders can combat bullying by promptly identifying bullying behavior directly to the bully," Rhoads says. "Nurse managers should cultivate an environment of safety and encourage reporting of bullying behavior."

There is no wrong or right way to combat nurse bullying as long as you aren't violent in words or actions. When you spot bullying, try calling out the action itself but calling in the person.

Calling someone in is a less reactionary way to deal with conflict. It looks like pulling someone aside and speaking with them privately about their actions.

After addressing the behavior, be sure to hold the person bullying accountable for a change in behavior moving forward, too.

If you call out bullying and speak with the nurse about their behavior, you're dealing with bullying the right way. If you're experiencing bullying yourself, escalating the situation to a manager is also a way to combat bullying when calling out the behavior isn't safe or effective.

The Impacts of Bullying in the Workplace

As defined by the Joint Commission, workplace bullying is referred to as lateral or horizontal violence that is "repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators."

Bullying can come in different forms, and new nurses who experience it should be aware.

Bullying is:

  • Verbal abuse
  • Work interference
  • Threatening, intimidating, or humiliating behaviors
    (including nonverbal)
  • Sabotage that prevents you from getting your work done

In a recent Occupational Safety and Health Administration report on healthcare workplace violence:

Twenty-one percent of nurses and nursing students admitted being physically assaulted. Over 50% of nurses admitted to being verbally abused in a 12-month period.

Another study reported over 30% of new nurses reported bullying.

The impact of bullying on new nurses leads to:

  • Frequent callouts
  • Leaving their unit
  • Leaving the profession
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Poor mental health
  • Ineffective communication
  • Inability to work within a team

The culture of nurses bullying in the workplace is a perpetual cycle. It is often downplayed by management using phrases like "they are always like that" or "they didn't mean it."

"Many senior or more experienced nurses were [also] bullied as a new nurse," Rhoads says. "They feel they need to do the same to new nurses so that they can 'grow thick skin.'"

At some facilities, bullying is blatantly ignored.

Donna F. Brown, a retired nurse, recalls an incident with another nurse grabbing a chart out of her hand, then implying she was interviewing the patient incorrectly. When Brown reported the nurse, no action was taken.

"Similarly, going through the hospital's grievance process brought no satisfactory resolve," Brown says.

As a result of bullying, Brown says she was reluctant to come to work. Ske often felt tired and depressed while working.

"Despite all odds, I still delivered high-quality nursing care to my patients because that was what was expected of me, and moreover, that was my work ethic," Brown says.

However, because of the repeated bullying, increased nurse burnout, and overall dissatisfaction with nursing, Brown left the profession.

Why Bullying Happens in Nursing

The origin of nursing and bullying is well documented. Stories of sabotage and verbal abuse can be found as far back as the 1970s. The phrase "nurses eat their young" is still relevant today. It is used internationally and has been used for over 30 years.

Literature reviews trace back to the hierarchical nature of the nursing practice as one of the causes of nurse bullying. One literature review points out nurses bully because of:

  • Misuse of power
  • Structural constraints
  • Corporatization of healthcare
  • Divisions within the ranks of nurses and doctors

New nurses report incidences of bullying higher during the first three months after receiving their license. The reason why? Nurses cite bullying as a rite of passage for new nurses or a norm against newly licensed nurses.

Brown believes fear is a driving force to bullying in nursing.

"In my opinion," says Brown, "fear of appearing incompetent, lack of teamwork, lack of respect for nursing coworkers, and stressful and demanding working conditions are among the most significant factors that contribute to nurse bullying."

What to Do if You Experience Bullying as a Nurse

If you are bullied or witness someone being bullied in the workplace, know that it is serious and should not be taken lightly. Here are a few actionable recommendations:

  • If you witness bullying in the workplace and feel safe to engage, call out the behavior and address it directly with the nurse bullying others.
  • If your facility has a chain of command, use it starting with the assistant nurse manager, nurse educator, or nurse manager.
  • If your manager is doing the bullying, report it to human resources.
  • If the bullying is severe, consistent, and nothing is being done immediately, report it to the director of nurses in your facility.
  • Feel empowered to report it to your state board of nursing as well.

What Nurse Leaders Should Do to Combat Bullying

Nurse leaders are responsible for supporting nurses' mental health and cultivating an environment that is safe for their nurses. Here are a few actionable recommendations to combat bullying:

  • Identify the person doing the bullying immediately and address it.
  • Nurses, especially new nurses, should be encouraged to report bullying behavior.
  • Have a system in place for reporting bullying and a designated person who follows up with the reports.
  • Create a nursing mentorship program for new nurses, particularly during their first three months.
  • Create an environment of zero tolerance for bullying through accountability.

Summary

  • If you are bullied or witness someone being bullied in the workplace, know that it is serious and should not be taken lightly.
  • There is no wrong or right way to combat bullying as long as you don't use violence.
  • Experienced nurses and nurse leaders can help combat new nurse bullying by acknowledging it, addressing it, and building a culture of zero tolerance through accountability.
  • New nurses should go up the chain of command to report bullying at their facility.

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