Nurses Eating Their Young: The Hidden Hospital Bullies

Nurses Eating Their Young: The Hidden Hospital Bullies

By Jennifer Gladstone


“Nurses eating their young.”  Have you heard that one before? I have always heard horror stories about what young doctors had to go through as they navigated the first few years of their profession, but apparently the hazing and outright bullying of young nurses has been a way of life in American hospitals for decades.

The American Nurses Association conducted a survey of nearly 4,000 registered nurses. The results are chilling. Almost half of the respondents said they had been bullied in some way while on the job. Fifty percent say they were bullied by a peer, 42% said the bully was someone in authority over them. The bullying was described as “repeated, unwanted harmful actions intended to humiliate, offend and cause distress,” including hostile remarks, verbal attack, taunts, threats, intimidation, and withholding support. And all of this is going on while nurses try to care for patients.

While it might seem shocking that all of this is happening while lives literally hang in the balance, workplace bullying expert Catherine Mattice says there are certain work environment characteristics that foster such aggressive behavior, and hospitals have them all.

  • Lots of senior employees (20+ years on the job)
  • High stress levels
  • Strict bureaucratic systems
  • Highly competitive
  • Employees with high levels of intelligence and education

If you are in the healthcare industry and trying to combat bullying, you are not just dealing with behavior change. You are trying to change an entire culture that has been thriving for decades. Nations like Australia and Sweden have been tackling the issue head on for several years. America is just waking up to the concept that the bullies are not only in the schoolyard, but also in the workplace.

The negative culture in healthcare is getting a little help from the Joint Commission, the accrediting body for the healthcare industry. The Commission came out with a leadership standard in 2008 that recognizes that if nurses are afraid of each other and afraid to speak up during their work day, it can literally be a life or death situation for their patients. Free-flowing communication is the only way to keep patients safe. Now, in order to be accredited, healthcare facilities must have a focus on training to teach employees that they cannot be aggressive and create fear. A zero-tolerance policy and leadership processes for handling bullying must also be in place.

Policy changes can’t solve the whole problem, and Mattice says you can’t just tell people to stop bullying behavior in a training session. Change starts at the top. Administrators need to create a positive workplace. That means instead of saying “just don’t do it,” managers should say “this is what we want and here is why.” The positive workplace also needs rewards for good behavior, discipline for the bad, and an open door policy that makes targets and witnesses feel comfortable to come forward when they experience bullying.

Over the next few months EBI will be focusing a lot of attention on the problem of bullying in the workplace with the help of expert and author Catherine Mattice, owner of Civility Partners, a consulting firm specializing in eradicating workplace bullying. If you would like more information on dealing with bullying check out Catherine’s book, Back Off.

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About the Author

Jennifer Gladstone

Jennifer Gladstone

Jennifer Gladstone is a news anchor and journalist with more than 20 years of experience in front of the camera. She's worked in several markets, large and small, and has performed nearly every task needed in a newsroom. As EBI’s Screening News Editor, she keeps EBI’s customers and blog subscribers up to date on the latest screening news and legislative alerts affecting companies of all sizes.

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