Are You a Nurse Bully?

Nurse bullying heightens tension in environments that are already very stressful. To create a healthier, more positive workplace environment, it’s worth evaluating if you (whether intentionally or not) are exhibiting bully behaviors.

Nurse bullying, or lateral violence, is a form of workplace violence defined as non-physical, aggressive, hostile, and/or harmful behavior between coworkers. While individual acts of nurse bullying can appear relatively harmless, they create a toxic environment that takes a toll on employees’ morale and can compromise patient care.

Studies estimate that somewhere between 46% and 100% of nurses have experienced lateral violence at some point during their careers. In fact, one study found that more than 27% of nurses had experienced lateral violence within the previous six months.

While the exact nature of bullying can vary between individuals and organizations, there are common behaviors. Take a moment to stop and ask yourself if you have ever:

  • Used power to manipulate or control others?
  • Intentionally withheld information a coworker may need to do their job?
  • Mocked or publicly shamed a coworker?
  • Intimidated a coworker through verbal threats of disciplinary action?
  • Refused to offer help or guidance when needed?
  • Issued unfair assignments or downplayed others’ accomplishments?
  • Yelled at a coworker?
  • Refused to look at a coworker when speaking to them or rolled your eyes at them?
  • Gossiped about coworkers?
  • Excluded coworkers or made sarcastic or belittling comments to them?

Why nurse bullying?

Amy Loughren, RN, as portrayed in the Netflix movie The Good Nurse, weighed in on the how bullying impacts nursing.

“Bullies cause stress and anxiety for the entire team and calling them out can also lead to retaliation in the form of passive aggressive gossiping, attempts to form anti-colleague alliances, and ignoring calls for assistance,” noted Amy.

“At best, this creates an environment of stress — at worst, it interrupts patient care potentially causing patient harm.”

amy loughren headshot

Amy Loughren, RN

Amy discussed how a lack of self-reflection can lead to nurses unknowingly practicing bullying behavior throughout their careers.

“I have worked with nurses who are clearly a bully and yet they would be shocked if someone called them out on their bullying behavior,” said Amy. “There seems to be a lack of self-insight as bullies tend to believe their intimidations are warranted rather than harmful and hurtful.”

While there are differing opinions and theories as to why nurse bullying is so common, Amy believes it might be part of a defense mechanism and a dysfunctional way that nurses set boundaries.

“Perhaps saying no isn’t comfortable for them so making themselves unapproachable pushes colleagues away and deters supervisors from asking anything of them,” she shared.

If you’re being bullied

If you witness bullying behaviors directed at yourself or others, do the following:

  • Immediately ask for help.
  • Tell the perpetrator that their behavior is unacceptable — silence implies that the abuse is tolerated.
  • Clearly communicate how you would like to be treated instead of assuming the perpetrator already knows.
  • Carefully document every detail of the encounter.
  • Offer support and assistance to the colleague being bullied.
  • Follow the chain of command to register a complaint with a third-party organization, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) if your management does not take your feedback seriously.

To truly impact bullying, there’s only so much an individual nurse can do. Aside from reflecting on your own behavior and reporting it, choose to work for an organization that does not tolerate nurse bullying.

“Dealing with nurse bullying is challenging, especially in environments where such behavior is an accepted part of the culture,” said Amy. “It’s up to organizations to address bullying and create a culture in which nurses feel comfortable reporting instances of bullying.”

Attention to culture

While supporting nurses who report abuse is important, nurse managers and other nursing leaders must take their efforts one step further to create a positive, healthy workplace culture that prevents bullying from occurring in the first place. This can be accomplished through:

Developing a zero-tolerance policy: Zero-tolerance policies for workplace hostility outline clear expectations for employee behavior, as well as the consequences for those who fail to meet these expectations. This also empowers employees to speak up without fear of retribution.

Leading by example: Managers and other leaders must commit to enforcing zero-tolerance policies and modeling positive workplace behavior. When leaders do this, they are signaling to all members of their team that lateral violence is not tolerated.

Assessing the root cause: Organizations can use behavioral and situational assessments to help determine the root cause of bullying. This information helps leaders create a more comprehensive framework for addressing bullying.

Providing conflict management education: Effectively confronting bullying takes courage and tact. Through conflict resolution training, nurse leaders can empower their nurses with the skills to address and manage bullying and other forms of workplace violence.

Creating awareness: It’s important for all nurses (but especially new ones) to have a firm grasp on the signs of bullying. Training materials can help nurses better understand the differences between acceptable and unacceptable behavior and encourage them to report cases of abuse.

Promoting team building: Nurses who feel that they are truly part of a team are less likely to engage in bullying. Emphasizing the importance of support networks and creating time and space for team building can help foster positive interpersonal behaviors.

Protecting your emotional health

Workplace violence in health care, including bullying, can have negative effects on the entire nursing workforce. Arming yourself with education and resources to protect your emotional well-being will benefit your practice throughout your career.

Join and Amy Loughren for a three-part webinar series, Emotional Health As a Path to Sustainability. These discussions will be centered around enhancing the emotional well-being of nurses.

The second session in the series, “Bullying in the Workplace,” will help nurses identify and address bullying behavior, promote self-awareness, and avoid blaming tactics.

Register for upcoming sessions and access previous sessions here.

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