Bullying: The Culture Of Nursing

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Bullying is an everyday occurrence in nursing and health care. Nurses bully each other. Physicians bully each other. Supervisors bully employees. This often leaves us wondering how is it that people in an industry centered on service, compassion, and patient care can be so awful toward each other. Are we burnt-out caregivers? Is this our way of “venting” the chaos and emotional strain that we endure on a daily basis?

There is nothing that irks me more than bullying in nursing. Even after 10 years, I have occasional run-ins with bullying by nurses and providers that I work with. It’s a harsh reality of our profession. Bullying is something that we together can work to stop. It starts with developing and encouraging a culture of no tolerance. This must start with education. The solution starts with you.

If someone is bullying you—gossiping about you, grumbling about your work, or giving you attitude—it’s up to you to have the courage and professionalism to not tolerate it. You should confront them in a professional and appropriate manner. If you don’t make the effort to stick up for yourself, who will? The only way that we can start this new culture of a bully-free environment is by standing up for ourselves. However, there are effective and not-so-effective ways to go at it.

Here’s what I recommend…

  • COOL OFF. Don’t react in the moment. Wait until you can look at the incident or behavior objectively, without being angry or emotional.
  • ASK TO CHAT. Respectfully request a meet-up with your bully at the end of the shift or another convenient time, and set a place where there won’t be an audience. Do this outside of the patient-care area—perhaps in a manager’s office or a neutral space.
  • ACKNOWLEDGE EXPERTISE.Everybody brings something to the table. Flattery won’t get you anywhere, but be clear that you recognize the bully’s professional qualifications and experience—of whatever length, especially if the nurse is senior to you.
  • POINT OUT ALIGNMENT. Include something like this: “We both chose this profession because we believe we can care for patients and we can improve well-being. That’s why I’m here. I’m sure that’s what motivates you too.”
  • FLAG THE BEHAVIOR.Be specific and brief about the incident, point out what happened, how it made you feel, and why it was unhelpful.
  • BE CLEAR ABOUT R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Be clear that you don’t mind feedback from coworkers, but you expect professionalism. “I’ll be more likely to meet your expectations and be more helpful if I don’t have to separate the message from all the negativity. I expect respect.”

Again, confronting a bully is never easy. Make sure you document the moment too, by writing down what happened or having a conversation with HR or your supervisor (assuming that person’s not the bully.) But most important is connecting directly with the bully and being clear that you have too much respect for yourself to let them get away with the bullying behavior and that you both should focus on delivering the best care to patients by promoting a positive and well-flowing work environment. You don’t have to be friends, but nobody should be walking on eggshells every shift.


Katie Duke MSN, ACNP-BC

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