How Do You Know It’s Nurse Bullying?

How Do You Know It’s Nurse Bullying?

Nurse bullying is a big problem in the profession, but it’s under reported and not addressed as effectively as possible. And the reason isn’t as simple as nurses not wanting to speak up.

Sometimes nurses aren’t even sure the horrible behavior they are being subject to is actually bullying, says Dr. Renee Thompson, DNP, RN, CMSRN, and CEO and president of RT Connections, LLC, and author of “Do No Harm” Applies to Nurses, Too!,.

Bullying behavior can be quite obvious, but it’s just as often something so subtle the target isn’t even sure if the actions are intended. “Bullies will test the waters,” she says. “They will do something and see the reaction they get. If they are resisted, they will usually, but not always, stop it.” But if the behavior isn’t addressed immediately, the bully takes on power and the behavior can escalate.

What are some things to watch out for?

True nurse bullying behaviors and unintended coincidences can be separated by the pattern and the repetition you will see over time.

The most obvious, and for some nurses easiest to deal with, bullying is the in-your-face colleague who is yelling at you and insulting you. There’s no doubt what’s going on there.

But other things are much harder to really pin down. Dr. Thompson recalls hearing a story from a nurse who won an award and soon found herself with the most acute patients and more cases than any other nurses on the floor during her shifts. The nurse wasn’t sure if she just had a bad luck of the draw, but then she overheard a charge nurse indicating that it was on purpose to bring her down a few notches from her award. Startled, the nurse identified what was really happening.

Other times, nurses create situations to have other nurses fail. Maybe during hand off you weren’t given all the information you needed. “They set you up to make a mistake and then write you up for it,” says Dr. Thompson.

And what about the times when all the nurses wear the same jacket or they all order out lunch together and exclude one person? Or if a few nurses gossip at work and spread rumors? All these behaviors seem petty, but they really happen at some workplaces.

If you have ever seen or experienced these behaviors, Dr. Thompson says it’s a good idea to track what you see. Carry a small notebook and jot things down over a couple of weeks. “You are looking for a pattern,” she says, “not a one-time incident.” Even if you end up doing nothing with the information, Dr. Thompson says the very act of documenting can help you because it can help you establish a clear pattern of bullying. It can be a relief to know it’s not just your imagination.

Then you can choose a few options. You can confront the person in a respectful manner that’s supported with facts (which you now have thanks to that handy notebook!). You can say something like, “I noticed this is the fifth time in a row when you were in charge that I got all the patients with the highest acuity. Can you help me to understand why that is?”

If you aren’t comfortable going to your direct supervisor, you can consider going to your supervisor’s supervisor. You can also approach human resources, says Dr. Thompson. Check your company’s policy on destructive behaviors so you can present a clear case on what specific behaviors have been violated.

And, of course, if you can relate what is happening to how it impacts patient safety or patient care, you have a greater chance of someone doing something about it, says Dr. Thompson. If you went to a charge nurse at 2 am and asked about a patient in crisis and were told to handle it yourself, you have a clear example of how the actions are impacting patient care.

And Dr. Thompson doesn’t wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to nurse bullying. If your boss is best friends with the VP of human resources or with everyone in her line of command, you might want to just leave. “Get out,” says Dr. Thompson. “It’s just not worth it and you can go find a better place. You deserve to work in a great place.”

Nurse Bullying: What’s Going On?

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.