Spotlight on Bullying in the Field of Nursing

Lateral violence has been occurring in the field of nursing for so long that it has even been given its own slogan: “nurses eat their young.” This bullying can start even while the future nurse is still in school, and it can persist throughout the course of a person’s career.

Drawing attention to the unbecoming behaviors of nurses who bully is one way to help shift the culture. Every nurse has the right to work in an environment that promotes positive interactions among coworkers, and it is the responsibility of both leadership and staff nurses to be sure they are doing their part in making this happen.

What causes nurse bullying?

Many of the causes of bullying in the field of nursing are also in alignment with the causes of bullying in other environments. The answer can be as simple as one nurse acting on insecurity because he or she feels “threatened” by the presence of another nurse. This may be rooted in concern that the newer nurse has different knowledge or experiences that threaten the knowledge and experiences of the nurse who has been in the unit for quite some time. New nurses are more likely to come into the field with fresh excitement, while more experienced nurses may be feeling burnt out or even resentful.

Some nurses, especially those who are bullied themselves, may view being bullied as having to “pay your dues” in the field. They may feel they have “earned” their place in the unit and that they have a right to the easiest assignments or to have fewer patients than others. These viewpoints promote an environment where patient care and safety is put on the backburner.

Another contributor to bullying in the nursing field is having a lack of strong leadership within the unit or hospital. Leadership can either positively or negatively impact the culture of a unit, and systemic nurse bullying tends to be seen through generations of nurses, rather than through a few outliers. Having a strong leadership team can help to steer the unit in the right direction and end the negative cycle. 

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What is classified as bullying? 

With the progression of technology, bullying can take more forms today than ever before. There are still obvious signs of physical bullying, such as pushing someone or getting into any type of physical altercation, but many of the signs of bullying are much more subtle during this day and age.

Words can be harmful, especially when they are used to belittle or embarrass other nurses. Utilizing harsh, unnecessary words can negatively impact an individual’s self-esteem, especially in new nurses who are trying to establish themselves in their career. Additionally, words or behaviors that minimize some of the more challenging aspects of the career can be damaging to a struggling nurse who is looking for empathy and support.

Bullying can also take more subtle forms in the way the unit is organized. A lead nurse could assign “more challenging” patients to a new staff member to “save” the more experienced staff from having to take on a harder role. New nurses may also be given unfair nurse-to-patient ratios, creating more stress and potentially posing a safety risk.

Online platforms also serve as grounds for potential bullying. Gossiping, making  rude comments, or chastising a colleague, whether in person or online, is a form of bullying and should be taken seriously. Additionally, ostrasizing someone from the unit’s “team” mentality is also unnecessary and can be damaging to the work environment.

What are the effects of bullying?

Bullying affects more than just the individual(s) being bullied; it has impacts on the entire profession. Nurses who are being bullied are more likely to leave the field and pursue an alternative career option. This leaves us with fewer qualified nurses to work, which may become even more challenging as many nurses are approaching retirement age.

Patients also suffer when there is bullying in the unit. Every patient deserves to experience safe nurse-to-patient ratios and may not get that if a bullied nurse is overloaded with patients. Bullied nurses may be afraid to ask for help when they need it, resulting in safety risks that could cause harm to a patient. The job is already stressful enough in itself, and adding increased, unnecessary, stress can result in a nurse being unable to perform to his or her optimal level.

What can we do to make a change? 

While nurse-on-nurse lateral violence has been around for decades, there are still opportunities to change the course of the profession in effort to eliminate bullying. It is important that all members of the staff be held to a standard that promotes positive interactions among all nurses. 

One way to help reduce nurse bullying is to hold everyone on the unit accountable, including those who witness bullying but choose not to speak up about it. Encouraging all members of the team to be responsible for the work culture is crucial to promoting a more positive environment. Additionally, there should be no tolerance for lateral violence, and those who are involved in workplace bullying should be held accountable for their words and actions.

Another way to help deter bullying among nurses is to reduce any stressors of the workplace that could be avoided. While some stress is just part of the career, there are ways to prevent any unnecessary stressors, such as ensuring the department is appropriately staffed and being strict with nurse-to-patient ratios for assignments. 

Any reports of bullying within the department should be taken seriously and investigated. If not, others may not report that they are being bullied or have witnessed bullying behavior. All employees should be able to report incidences to Human Resources without having to fear retaliation.

Lastly, building a strong leadership team with training on interpersonal work relationships and collaborative team methods can help to alter the systemic issue of nurse-on-nurse lateral violence. When leaders are able to take a strong stance against bullying, it sets the path for others in the department to follow in suit.

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