Nurses Who Eat Their Young: The Dirty Secret of Bullying

Those who can, do. Those who can’t, bully.

Last night I went to my local nursing association’s business meeting.  I enjoyed a glass of wine over a lovely dinner while engaging in long overdue conversations with colleagues and friends.  Then the presenter began the evening’s topic on horizontal violence (AKA workplace bullying). It wasn’t long before smiles faded, heads dropped, and yes, tears flowed.  The air chilled as we sadly shared with one another our early experiences with bullies.  First as children, then later as new nurses, we told tales of being victims of lateral violence. Here we sat, a room full of education, degrees, awards, diversity, and experience – several had more than thirty years in the field.  But we all had one thing in common – we had either been eaten, or we were the ones who ate their young.

One of the presenters, a May 2012 nursing graduate, did her capstone honor’s project on horizontal violence.  She spent a year collecting data from a local hospital’s acute care unit. 82% participation disclosed over 50% of the nurses reported being bullied by a manager or colleague.  And then her research became reality – just two weeks into her dream job at a high acuity ICU she became a victim.  She had come full circle and wondered how her life dream could turn into a present day nightmare.  Even with her years worth of knowledge in identifying and confronting this malignant nursing behavior, she felt powerless, alone, and desperate for a solution.

By definition, workplace bullying is ““Persistent, offensive, abusive, intimidating or insulting behavior, abuse of power or unfair penal sanctions which makes the recipient feel upset, threatened, humiliated or vulnerable, which undermines their self-confidence and which may cause them to suffer stress.” (MSF Union, 1994) Examples of such behavior include eye rolling, frowning, shouting, sarcasm, passive aggressiveness, gossip, exclusion, derogatory comments, failure to communicate patient information, intimidation, silent treatment, excessively critical. Key word: Persistent. Everyone has a one time temper tantrum or bad day. But if it is ongoing, there’s a problem.

Why would a nurse engage in such contemptible behavior?  Many factors can contribute; high stress, short staffed units, job dissatisfaction, personal troubles, isolation, and the all too common nurse manager who’s a top notch nurse but knows nothing about management. Whatever the reason, it is shameful, dangerous, damaging to both the patient and victims, and has got to stop.

So what do we do? Is there any hope for us? Can we work together and put aside our differences and personal baggage and make our workplaces a healthy, inclusive environment? Though our nursing careers varied, we all agreed that what kept us in the profession was our commitment to our patients – they were the reason we do what we do.  For their sake, we must change.

Here are some ideas on how to keep the mothers from eating their babies:

  1. Acknowledge the problem.  If you see a repetitive bullying behavior, it needs to be addressed. Whether it is you or one of your co-workers, it’s time to take action.
  2. Confront the bully. In a respectful manner say something like , “I sense you disapprove of my performance with….you might not have realized when you said I was inexperienced it made me feel bad and has since continued to bother me. Let’s talk.”
  3. Document. Keep track of the incidents adding as much specifics as possible, along with dates/time/shift/witnesses/etc.  Log your actions and attempted discussions.
  4. Know your institution’s policy and follow it. Go up the ranks until you find someone who will intervene.
  5. Band together.  It’s easy to bully one, it’s harder to take on a team.
  6. Request training in horizontal violence. Give your continuing education department a head’s up that  you have a dysfunctional work environment and need serious help.
  7. If you’re the bully, admit it and stop. Seek help.You are a care giver who needs care.  It takes more courage to repent than to keep on sinning. Your fellow nurses will forgive you.
  8. If you are a manager, learn how to manage. It takes more than seniority and a MSN to be a good manager. Get some training and make a promise to improve your weak areas.
  9. Network. Join your local nursing organization and get involved.  You’d be surprised how many nurses are going through exactly the same thing you are. Talk to each-other, form friendships, and believe that things can change.
  10. Don’t give up. Unless you are out of options and your health is suffering, believe in yourself, your dream, and continue to give outstanding nursing care to your patients.  They need you.

Based on our dialogue last night, the consensus was there is a ton of work ahead, but with a united front, and empowering ourselves through education and support, we can overcome. Rather than eat them, nurses will teach their young. And when the fledglings are ready to soar, we will contentedly smile and remember why we chose to be nurses:

“To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived – that is to have succeeded”. Ralph Waldo Emerson