Bullying in Nursing: Why Nurses Eat Their Young?

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Two nurses walk up a stairwell discussing their patients.

Nurses are professionals who dedicate themselves to improving patient health. However, bullying in nursing is a widespread problem. A study from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and American Nurses Association found that more than half of registered nurses have been verbally abused. These alarming figures raise a necessary question: Why do nurses eat their young?

Instances of bullying, which can include continued criticism, unfair assignments, and career sabotage, are linked to power dynamics within an organization. This may include a nurse in a supervising role acting rudely to a nurse in a more junior position. In other cases, bullying may result from competition for a promotion, such as a nurse verbally taunting another who may also be in consideration for a higher-paying role. These examples of bullying can happen in any health care environment — and it is up to qualified, educated nurse leaders to mentor young nurses about how to stop bullying and harassment in the workplace.

Nurses who possess an advanced degree, such as an online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), commonly develop skills that help them identify and stop instances of workplace bullying. Graduates of an online MSN program can gain enhanced capabilities in critical thinking, decision-making, and organizational management, all of which can help them be more effective leaders.

Preventing Nurse Bullying Through Leadership

Nurse bullying is a real issue that can manifest itself in myriad health care environments. But one of the most effective ways to prevent and address this problem is through strong and considerate leadership.

Strong Nurse Leaders Are Needed to Prevent Bullying

Victims of bullying often do not have the ability to easily stop the abuse and harassment themselves. This might involve nurses who are experiencing bullying but are reluctant to confront or address their abuser due to factors such as workplace politics, rank within the organization, or adverse reactions from their colleagues.

Writing for Reflections on Nursing Leadership, Laura C. Dzurec states, “From an objective standpoint, it’s perfectly logical for bullying victims to just say no to the bully, but just saying no is not a skill of those vulnerable to bullying. Victims of bullying are not noted for resiliency, but rather — by virtue of their self-doubt and the resulting positions they occupy in the workplace pecking order — defeat.”

According to Dzurec, even those who are not instigators of workplace bullying can still contribute to the problem. They can choose to be bystanders and not associate with the bullying victim due to fear of stigma through association. Even though the act of bullying may involve as few as two people, it can affect an entire nursing staff or department. And because nurses work in such busy and fast-paced environments, staff may not recognize or have the time to handle bullying conflicts on their own.

This is why nursing leaders are needed to help prevent, address, and mitigate bullying scenarios in the workplace. “For workplace administrators, dealing with bullying clearly demands a level of leadership acumen that stands cognitively and ethically above the overwhelming chaos that bullying incites,” Dzurec writes.

Causes and Signs of Nurse Bullying

Being a good nurse leader is about more than setting schedules and overseeing staff. A true nurse leader inspires others to work together to improve workplace harmony and patient outcomes. They are cognizant of different causes and situations in which bullying can occur and understand how it should be addressed. They also know that ignoring bullying can perpetuate a toxic work environment, ultimately affecting patient care.

For example, strong nurse leaders know that although bullying can impact any staff member, nurses without managerial experience are more likely to be bullied. Nurse leaders also know that health organizations with ineffective leadership are more likely to have continued issues with workplace bullying.

Renee Thompson, a leading authority on nurse bullying, says that issues like those described above need to be attacked from all sides. “First, you need leadership commitment,” Thompson says in an article published in Oncology Nursing News. “You also need frontline managers, those who are responsible for the day-to-day operations and the behaviors of their employees, to be provided the training and education they need to develop the skills to be able to address destructive behaviors.”

Effective nurse leaders are also better trained to spot overt signs of nurse bullying, such as name-calling and excessive criticism. They’re also more likely to spot covert or less obvious signs of bullying, such as a nurse who is deliberately ostracized, excluded from lunch invitations or social gatherings, or consistently assigned to work with difficult or demanding patients.

Essential Skills That Can Stop Bullying in Nursing

To ensure patients receive quality care, nurse leaders must develop a variety of skills that can help them curb harassment and bullying among staff. These competencies include critical thinking skills, a steadfast commitment to ethical integrity, teaching skills, and leadership capabilities. Earning a Master of Science in Nursing provides nurses with the opportunity to develop these skills.

Critical Thinking: Nurse leaders need strong critical-thinking skills to make prudent, patient-centered decisions based on multiple factors. For example, a supervising nurse may notice that a junior team member is receiving poor feedback about their delivery of patient care. In this situation, the supervising nurse must think critically about the workplace factors that are impacting that junior nurse and whether bullying may be among them.

Integrity: Nurse leaders who demonstrate personal integrity are more likely to be confident in their ability to make the right disciplinary choices when dealing with a nurse bully. For example, there may be a nurse who is popular among experienced staff but who also has a reputation for bullying junior nurses. Strong nursing leaders will maintain their integrity by reprimanding the nurse bully, even in the face of objections from the staff.

Training Acumen: Nurse leaders understand the need to prevent bullying before it starts. Addressing bullying while orienting new staff can assist with breaking the bullying cycle. Training also allows nurses to get to know each other and form professional relationships of mutual dependence and respect.

Leadership: Nurses in positions of leadership must be able to provide their staff with a model of behavior, both in terms of professional integrity and the performance of job duties. They must also empower staff to come forward and report unacceptable behavior. This may be accomplished by providing anonymity and support to both the person doing the reporting and the person being reported on.

How to Help a Nurse Who Is Being Bullied

There are several ways that nurse leaders can help bullied staff:

  • Hold Bullies Accountable: Inaction allows bullies to continue to harm victims. Those bullying others need to be reprimanded as soon as the actions occur to reduce harm.
  • Report to Human Resources: Even nurse leaders who do take action and address bullying may find that a bully is continuing their bad behavior. In these instances, reporting the person to human resources may be the next necessary step to ensure the harmful act is documented and addressed.
  • Pay Attention to Staff Behavior: Sometimes bullying victims may not feel comfortable raising their voice or expressing their feelings. This is why nurse leaders must be cognizant of the social dynamics of their staff and keep a close eye on interactions to note if any bullying is taking place.
  • Create a Bully-Free Environment: Making staff members aware of examples of bullying and the harm that can arise from it can help reduce its frequency in the workplace. One strategy is to provide awareness training. Another is to make sure nurse leaders have an open door policy for staff members.

Learn More

Nurse bullying is a serious issue that can take place in any workplace environment. Even though there are several methods to deal with nurse bullying, health care organizations often lack nursing leaders capable of addressing the issue.

Nurses who enroll in advanced education, such as Regis College’s Master of Science in Nursing program, are provided the opportunity to develop the knowledge, skills, and experience to become sensitive and capable nursing leaders. Graduates are better equipped to identify and address nurse bullying, stop it from spreading, and become valuable additions to hospitals and health organizations in need of effective leadership.
Discover how earning an online Master of Science in Nursing at Regis College can help you become an impactful nursing leader and help stop the cycle of nurses eating their young.

Recommended Reading
Degrees Defined: What Does MSN Mean?
The Importance of Teamwork and Collaboration in Nursing
How Many Nurses are in the U.S.?

American Nurses Association, “Violence, Incivility, & Bullying”
Becker’s Hospital Review, “8 things to know about nurse bullying”  Abate Counseling, “3 Strategies for Managers for Dealing With Workplace Bullying. No. 3 Is Hardest”
Oncology Nursing News, “Zero Tolerance: Stopping Nurse Bullying Begins With Leadership”
Reflections on Nursing Leadership, “When Bullies Rule”Regis College, 9 Essential Qualities of Nurse Leadership
Relias Media, “Bullying Among Nurses, Other Healthcare Workers Harms Workplace Culture”