Nurses and Bullying: 4 Things You Can Do

Nurses and Bullying: 4 Things You Can Do

Case study: Cindy was an older new grad. She went back to school after a long and successful career as a chemist, deciding that she wanted to be a nurse and explore other avenues of service for her “second half” of life. Capable and efficient in her first line of work, it was a shock to find herself as a novice where everything felt unfamiliar and where mastery was a ways off. Her first place of work was on a busy ortho floor. The second week at work, she called me crying. “Their expectations are so high. They keep threatening me.” I tried to listen without judging or offering advice, but something just seemed off. Every few days she texted or called and what she described didn’t seem like anything I had ever experienced as a nurse: where there should have been mentoring, there was censoring; where there should have been guidance, there was abandonment; where there should have been counseling, there was silence and isolation. The source of most of the problems was her preceptor, a young nurse, who my friend described and very physically attractive but unkind. As it turns out, she was a bully.

Nursing is not immune to bullying.

Nursing is not immune to bullying. While we would hope that in such a caring profession, we would find a greater percentage of people with compassionate care agendas, sadly there are also a number of practitioners who exhibit the characteristics of a bully: they are critical, negative, they isolate their victims, avoid meeting with them, and generally make life miserable.

According to a study by Etienne, “Bullying in the nursing workplace has been identified as a factor that affects patient outcomes and increases occupational stress and staff turnover.” (https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/216507991406200102)

The trouble with bullying is that it is often subtle and therefore difficult to recognize as such. While the playground bully may be overt and even violent, the adult bully is usually disguised under heavy layers of professional accomplishment and years of experience with manipulating others. They come in all shapes and sizes, both men and women, old and young. The “mean girls/guys” from 7th grade grow up, don’t they? But sadly, they sometimes don’t leave behind their old ways of treating others, and they bring those tactics with them when they put on their scrubs and head to the nursing workplace.

One of the primary manifestations of bullying is that the victim often feels that it is all his/her fault. After exposure to the bully’s tactics, they may even think to themselves, “If only I did this or that better, then they would not treat me this way.” The thought processes at the center of the bully/victim relationships can sometimes be lifted straight from our textbooks about abuse. Just as victims of domestic abuse many times blame themselves, nurses who are victims of bullying find themselves looking inward and wondering if there is something wrong with them.

What are some of the classic signs of a bully boss or co-worker? (https://www.yourerc.com/blog/post/20-subtle-signs-of-workplace-bullying)

Some more subtle signs:

Deceitful and manipulative- making promises but not keeping them or using promises to purposely disappoint.
Shaming and blaming- bullies want the victim to blame themselves.
Ignoring or undermining work- purposely “forgetting” to notify someone of meetings, belittling their work or accomplishments.
Intimidating and criticizing- setting impossible standards and even threatening.
Diversion and mood swings- bullies might avoid the victim so that the work issues cannot be resolved in a timely manner; and they are subject to widely varying moods (which boss/co-worker will be coming to work today? The sweet one or the nasty one?)

Overt bullying:

Aggression and intrusion- actual physical altercations with the bully entering your personal space.
Belittling, embarrassing and offensive communication- using their position to cause you harm, either physical, psychological or professional.
Coercion and threatening- pushing the victim to do things they don’t feel comfortable doing and using threats of termination or other punishment to get compliance with their demands.

So, if you or someone you know if being bullied in the workplace, what can you do?

Document- Keep a record of any threatening or inappropriate emails, texts or interactions. Should it become necessary to report the bad behavior, it will be important to have specific occurrences, words used, and frequency of episodes. Also, learn your workplace policies on bullying and what your recourses are.
Detach- Try to look at the occurrences in light of how this person treats others. Have you been “picked out” for special scrutiny? Bullies are sometimes bullies across the board but at times they pick out a few victims, zero in on those and treat others as allies, making the other staff members into (sometimes) unwitting accomplices for their own bad behavior.
Dare to Defy- Standing up to a bully is hard and practically can be impossible. Often, persistent bullying requires cutting our losses and moving on to another position. But adult and boss bullies—like those on the playground—can respond to pushback: maintaining eye contact, standing firm, ignoring or not acceding to their demands. This is harder to do than it sounds, because the victim of a bully at work frequently is not in a position to resist and finds themselves being jerked around by the perpetrator’s continually changing and escalating demands, whims and moods.
Defend- Be on the lookout for bullying behavior around you and if you see something, say something.

As for Cindy, in the end, she resigned after 3 months and went in search of another job—certainly not the route a new nurse wants to have on her resume—but a physical and psychological necessity given the bullying she experienced. After the rocky start, she went on to have an extremely successful career as a nurse and to find the profession a satisfying fit for her talents.

Have you witnessed bullying in your workplace? How have you been a victim of bullying?

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