On a typical workday in the hospital, I was chatting with my coworker (a physical therapist who we’ll refer to as “Robin”) about taking a continuing education class together. Robin wanted to earn some extra income, and she felt the training she’d get from the course would provide her with that opportunity. She was looking for a friend to accompany her to the class and thought I might be interested. I told her I’d think about it and get back to her the next day when we’d both be stuck working the Saturday shift together. Saturday arrived, and with an influx of overnight patient admissions, we were swamped. I’d had no chance to talk with Robin about the continuing education class. When our paths finally crossed, our conversation went something like this:

Me: I’m finished, Robin. I’ll see you next week.

Robin: Aren’t you going to see the patient that just came in an hour ago?

Me: I checked, but there weren’t any orders for occupational therapy. So, I’ll put her on the list for tomorrow.

Robin: Well, you need to see her today!

Me: I can’t see her today. There are no orders.

Robin: Doesn’t matter. But whatever. It’s your head on the chopping block.

Me: I’m not doing anything wrong, Robin. There are no orders for my services, and I can’t see a patient without orders. I’ll see you next week.

When I returned to work the following week, Robin’s whole attitude toward me had drastically changed. She was pointing at me and whispering to others, laughing when I walked passed her, intentionally ignoring me, and not discussing patients’ discharge plans with me. Confused, I kindly confronted her. “Is there something wrong?” I asked her. “Yeah, you,” she responded. “Don’t try to be nice when you talk to me. It’s fake. In fact, don’t talk to me at all.”

I was shocked by her response, but I maintained my composure. Later in the day, I mentioned Robin’s abrupt change in demeanor towards me to my manager. He brushed it off and said, “That’s just Robin.” For the next six months, I endured Robin’s bullying behavior towards me, and I hated going to work. Suddenly, Robin was gone; she’d moved away (thankfully), and we never spoke again. While I never compromised my integrity, I always wished I would have done more to stand up to her bullying in the workplace.

Unfortunately, workplace bullying isn’t as rare as we would like to think, and it’s one of the reasons nurses consider leaving the profession. Below are some tips on how to handle workplace bullying in the hopes that you will be better equipped than I was to handle this challenging situation.

1. Insist that supervisors, managers, and hospital administrators listen to you.

Truthfully, I was embarrassed this happened to me, so I downplayed the seriousness of Robin’s behavior rather than being assertive. Many workplaces have specific policies to address bullying, but those policies can’t be enforced unless your place of employment is aware the problem exists in the first place. While it takes courage to speak up, doing so fosters a culture that says, We don’t tolerate bullying. You may even want to consider filing an incident report.

2. Keep a record of your situation.

Write down your interactions with the bully along with the dates and times the incidences occurred. Also, keep a record of how you handled the situation; you’ll want to try to be as professional as possible, and your documentation should reflect those attempts to maintain a civil working relationship. In the event that you need to present the management with some specifics, your event log can help you do that in a calm and factual manner.

3. Build a support network with your colleagues.

Although being bullied may make you feel like you want to run and hide (and you might need to do that for a few minutes to regain your composure following an incident), one of the best things you can do to feel empowered is to focus on creating healthy relationships with your other coworkers. Having supportive people around you will help you face this situation with greater strength and confidence.

Also, if you are the coworker of someone who is being bullied, speak up on their behalf. Like the old saying says, there is strength in numbers.

4. Prepare yourself in case the situation happens again.

Rehearse what you’re going to say when the bully acts up. Having a few memorized lines will help you feel a sense of control and set a boundary for what behaviors you will and won’t tolerate. For me, I decided that I was going to remain focused on my job despite Robin’s actions toward me. When she tried to attack me verbally, I’d say, “For the sake of the patients in this hospital, I will remain professional towards you.” Then, I’d walk away.

5. If the bully doesn’t quit, you might need to.

If you’ve exhausted all of your options, and your situation doesn’t improve, it could be time for you to consider a new job. Bullying often leads to a spike in physical, emotional, and mental stress, so taking care of your well-being is the utmost priority. No, the bully hasn’t won if you leave. Instead, you’re choosing to find a job in a healthier, more supportive environment.

Jennifer Lelwica Buttaccio

Jenny Lelwica Buttaccio, OTR/L, is a Chicago-based, freelance lifestyle writer, licensed occupational therapist, and certified Pilates instructor. Her expertise is in health, wellness, fitness, and chronic illness management.

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