Nurse Bullying: What’s Going On?

If nurse bullying is such a problem, why aren’t nurses talking more about it with each other?

According to Dr. Renee Thompson, DNP, RN, CMSRN, and CEO and president of RT Connections, LLC, and author of “Do No Harm” Applies to Nurses, Too!, most nurses don’t openly discuss bullying in the workplace because of some really basic reasons.

We don’t talk about it because we are afraid,” she says. “We don’t talk about it because of the fear of retaliation, because we fear we might get terminated, and because we don’t know what to say.” And while nurses want to hear they won’t lose their jobs or they won’t get the worst assignments if they speak up, in reality, those very things could happen.

Nurse bullying isn’t new, says Dr. Thompson, although it seems to be getting worse. And while nurse bullying is a hot topic in the industry, it pops up in the media sometimes. Why? Well, the public has a hard time digesting the topic and they don’t want to think the nurses taking care of them could be tormenting each other. “A lot of people are shocked that nurses who are so caring and compassionate to their patients can be so horrible to each other,” says Dr. Thompson.

But if bullying isn’t halted, what happens? The industry feels the effects already, says Dr. Thompson. “Sixty percent of new nurses quit their first job within the first six months because of bullying behavior,” she says. “Forty eight percent of graduating nurses are afraid they will become the target of bullying.”

Just like the nursing profession, the roots of nurse bullying are complex, says Dr. Thompson.


Part of the problem, she says, is competitive nature that turns negative. “Instead of celebrating others’ accomplishments, we are thinking of ways to downplay or sabotage,” says Dr. Thompson. That means a promotion for a nurse could make other nurses turn on her.


And there’s plain old jealousy and envy. Lots of nurses, says Dr. Thompson, won’t even tell colleagues when they are going back to school. In fact, she says, some even forgo tuition assistance from work to keep it under wraps. Their ambition can make them a target of bullying behaviors.


And nurses are under increasing pressure at work, making an atmosphere that can turn tense. “Nurses are being asked to do more with less,” says Thompson. If they don’t have effective coping skills, some nurses can lash out at others.


Nurses have been tagged with the unfortunate label of “nurses eat their young,” but Dr. Thompson says that’s not always the case. She hears frequently from older nurses who are targets because of their age, because they aren’t as adept with technology, and because younger nurses see them as out of date. “This is the first time we have four generations in the same workplace,” says Dr. Thompson. “Now we are seeing bullying across all generations.”


Nurses who are different from the norm might find more bullying as well, says Dr. Thompson. She remembers being a new nurse and overhearing some of the older women complaining about a new young male nurse. “One said, ‘I don’t think men should be nurses, and I will do everything I can to make sure he doesn’t last here,’” recalls Dr. Thompson. So although men aren’t immune to the bullying among nurses, Dr. Thompson says they tend to react in a different manner. Men, she says, will often address the behavior immediately where many women won’t.

The cause of nurse bullying has many layers, and few of them are easy to navigate. Knowing the causes, being alert to behaviors, and talking with other nurses about bullying can help halt the problem in the long run.

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil
Julia Quinn-Szcesuil

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