“Mean girls of the ER”


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For 13 consecutive years, nurses have topped Gallup’s annual poll of Honesty and Ethical Standards in Professions. Indeed, it’s a position that nurses have earned. Inside the profession, however, nurses are navigating troubled waters. The source of all this tension? Nurse bullying.

In a recent article documenting this strange yet pervasive phenomenon, Alexandria Robbins, author of The Nurses: A Year of Secrets, Drama, and Miracles with the Heroes of the Hospital, explores a darker side of nursing—a side that, for the most part, has managed to sidestep the public eye. That is, until now. Here’s a little taste of what she unearthed:

[There is] rampant hazing, bullying, and sabotage so destructive that patients can suffer and, in a few cases, have died. Nurses told me about numerous daunting behavioral patterns: colleagues withholding crucial information or help, spreading rumors, name-calling, playing favorites, and intimidating or berating nurses until they quit.

Oh, and…

The bullying seems to be getting worse, says Gary Namie, Ph.D., director of the Workplace Bullying Institute in Bellingham, Washington, which receives more calls from nurses than from workers in any other field.

For example, take Christi, a 27-year-old nurse who responded to an unconscious patient without the support of others on staff because her call for help had been ignored. The patient survived, but not without having come perilously close to lapsing into a fatal coma.

Now, extreme cases aside, serious consequences exist outside of life-or-death situations, too:

Even when cliques aren’t behaving badly in critical situations, they still unsettle nurses and affect their job performance. At a Virginia hospital, a group of senior nurses have a history of mistreating younger coworkers. “I’ve seen them give someone multiple patients who need one-on-one care, then watch The Bachelor while the nurse struggles and runs around,” says Megan, 30, a labor and delivery nurse. “They’re spending 99 percent of their time gossiping.”

Of course, such a toxic environment takes a toll.

The prevalence of nurse bullying is staggering. Researchers say that at least 85 percent of nurses have been verbally abused by a fellow nurse. Worldwide, experts estimate that one in three nurses quits her job because of bullying and that bullying—not wages—is the major cause of a global nursing shortage. (In the U.S., the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by 2022, there will be a shortfall of 1.05 million nurses.)

Remember Christi? Two weeks after her first major encounter with malicious behavior, she opened her locker to find a bloody syringe hidden under her clothing. The blatant and indeed dangerous attack was left to simmer.

When Christi asked for an investigation, she says management refused, explaining, “We can’t fire 14 people for one nurse.” After the hospital denied her requests to change shifts or transfer departments, she left the institution.

So what, then, are a victim’s options?

Victims of nurse bullying rarely have legal recourse because woman-on-woman aggression isn’t discriminatory. “Unless there’s sexual coercion, there’s no legal protection. If you’re the same gender, same race, you’re stuck,” Namie says. “Bullying is primarily legal in America.”

Not surprisingly, the harassment is more commonly passive than outright, blatant aggression. But the circumstances vary dramatically, and the playing field is often uneven.

Nurses are in even more of a quandary when the bully is their boss. Supervisors have penalized nurses they don’t like by giving them undesirable schedules, piling on the workload, or assigning them belligerent or otherwise difficult patients. UMass Lowell nursing professor Shellie Simons, Ph.D., reported in a 2010 study that a nurse told her, “During my first pregnancy, because the charge nurse didn’t like me, I was assigned the most infectious patients—HIV, tuberculosis, and hepatitis.”

Unable to express their frustrations, either from fear or for want of healthy outlets, nurses have turned on each other. But there are nurses who will contend that the issue has been blown out of proportion. Some of those who are more experienced chalk it up to sensitivity and misinterpretation:

“When you’re in such a high-pressure environment, you just react sometimes. Nurses have to be able to handle that. If you get caught up in the anxiety of the situation, you tend to miss the finite details in patient care that can be the difference between life and death,” says Meghan, 30, a pediatric nurse practitioner in Pennsylvania. “People do things in hospitals they wouldn’t do in real life, like lose their temper. If you take it personally, it’s going to affect your job performance. You have to get over yourself.”

Clearly, then, the situation is not always black and white. However, there are lines that should not be crossed.

“The families never know,” Namie says. “The unwitting victim in all of this is the patient, who suffers because the older nurses want to play games with younger nurses. But there are life-and-death consequences.”

Want to check out the full article? There’s lots of good stuff in there, so we highly recommend you do. You can find it here. Then, tell us about your own experience with nurse bullies in the comments section below.

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