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As a resolution for the new year, prepare to take a stand against bullying. Sadly, new nurses are often lost to the profession for the most disturbing of reasons: workplace bullying. Even the greenest nursing student soon hears the phrase, “nurses eat their young,” which was first used by nursing professor Judith Meissner in 1986. As Katherine Colduvell, RN, BSN, BA, CBC notes on, “[the saying] refers to the bullying and harassment of new nurses, and those four simple words can cause a great deal of anxiety for new graduates. In fact, researchers propose that at least 85% of nurses have been bullied at some point in their nursing career.”

Why Nursing is a Fertile Ground for Bullying

Even before entering the workplace, nurses face bullying as students. After they enter the profession, new nurses have to confront the stresses involved in dealing with patients, being slighted by doctors, exhausting shifts, and even the miseries of sore feet. However, instead of banding together and enjoying a network of support from more experienced nurses, they often find themselves belittled, whispered about, harshly blamed even when not at fault, and subjected to openly abusive language.

Why is bullying so common among nurses? One frequently cited reason is based in oppression theory. In this theory, nurses are oppressed by their lack of empowerment within the healthcare system. Subject to being treated as inferiors by doctors, management, and even some patients, nurses often feel powerless against their oppressors and are likelier to take out their sense of oppression on members of their own group. Bystanders, meanwhile, are afraid to speak out for fear that they, too, will become the objects of bullying. In addition, nurses may have already encountered bullying in school from faculty and classmates who view one another as competitors rather than as colleagues.

Riding the Bullying Cycle

In Fast Facts on Combating Nurse Bullying, Incivility, and Workplace Violence, author Maggie Ciocco, MS, RN, BC shows that oppression leads to a vicious cycle, and “Not only are student nurses victims of bullying, but they themselves become bullies as well. This impact must be addressed, because they are our future in the health care system, and the lives of patients depend on the student nurse becoming a just and moral citizen.”

According to Renee Thompson, RN, who frequently speaks and writes on nurse bullying, patient care suffers as a result of the bullying cycle: “If I withhold information from you and it causes you to make a mistake with a patient, or if I yell at you or criticize you in front of a patient, it’s potentially harmful to patient care,” she said. “When you’re being treated in a way that is making you feel badly, it stops the flow of information. When we’re not freely communicating with members of the healthcare team, it ultimately affects outcomes.”

Protecting Yourself from Bullying

The question is, how can a nurse avoid being drawn into a bullying situation in the first place?

An ounce of prevention: research healthcare organizations before you apply (after all, nurses are in demand; an organization is applying for your acceptance as much as you are for theirs). Do they have strong official policies governing bullying in the workplace? A caring, respectful culture? What do other nurses say about the environment there?

Bear yourself with confidence. Bullies tend to pick on easy targets. If you have faith in yourself and take pride in your work, you will make a much less attractive object to those seeking vulnerabilities.

Be more than just a bystander. Even if you are not the object of bullying, being around it can affect the way you feel about yourself and your work. Being a bystander—simply witnessing acts of bullying—can create feelings of guilt, depression, disillusionment, and even trauma. Calmly stand up for the dignity of other nurses who are being maltreated. You will like yourself a lot better than you would if you instead pretended to ignore the bullying or merely stood in silence. Have a sense of humor, be positive, and try not to allow your emotions to rule your response. Like a grounded self-confidence, these are traits that can prevent you from becoming a target and can contribute to your ability to defend others who are being harassed.

Counteracting a Bullying Situation

As Maggie Ciocco advises, if you do find yourself or a co-worker on the wrong end of a bully, don’t fly off the handle. Your best options are to direct collegiality and pro-social responses to the behavior you are encountering:

  • Ignore the behavior—If the behavior is completely out of character for the person, you could just ask him or her a friendly question unrelated to what he or she just said. Polite, respectful conversation disarms a co-worker who has given way to stress and temper as much as it does a bona fide bully.
  • Be calm, confident and in-control when contradicting a bully (you don’t want to get dragged into a fight). Without being overly defensive, simply express disagreement—such as saying “That’s not the way it happened”—and introduce your side of the story.

You can also use what Ciocco describes as “therapeutic communication for bullies”:

  • Speak to how you will address the situation or help him or her to deal with the situation. “I’m going to ____. Is that okay with you?” or “Would you rather that I ______?”
  • If what you are saying is ignored, repeat what you will do to assist the bully, indicating that the bully needs to choose how the assistance will take place.
  • If the bully does not respond appropriately, this conversation at least puts him/her on notice that you will not tolerate being bullied. End the conversation by saying something like “why don’t we talk about this at/after such and such, when we have more time”—and leave the area.

Utilize Calm and Self-Respect to Gain a Position of Control

As suggests, “A good trick for enhancing your effectiveness is to choose the time and place for your confrontation with the bully. When you are attacked, calmly ask to meet with him later to discuss the matter. That will give you time to think through your response.” In the National Student Nurses’ Association’s study Nurse to Nurse Horizontal Violence, Recognizing it and preventing it, J.E. Hurley notes that “Five nurses in one study who spoke out against horizontal violence reported positive outcomes from ‘standing up for myself’”

In the end, it is likely that one of the most important qualities that should govern your actions is respect. Showing respect for yourself and your colleagues can help you to avoid bullies, to counteract bullying against yourself and others, and help prevent you from becoming a bully yourself.

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