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The problem of nurse bullying and harassment and how to prevent it

Nurse bullying and harassment

Hospitals and clinics are high-stress areas, and unfortunately, nurses often get the brunt of this stress. In a recent RNnetwork survey, nearly 40 percent of nurses reported being bullied or harassed during the past year. Bullying can come from co-workers, patients or doctors, but things can always get better. We talked to two telemetry nurses, LaDonna Shore and Scott Carpenter, about their experiences with nurse bullying, and what they did about it.

Bullying and harassment from other nurses

Nursing is all about teamwork, yet nurses can often get competitive. In the RNnetwork survey, nurses said that 30 percent of the bullying or harassment they dealt with came from other nurses. This is especially the case for travel nurses. Sometimes, traditional nurses see travel nurses as a threat because they’re bringing new experience from their other assignments.

LaDonna is a cardiac step-down nurse who has been traveling with RNnetwork for about a year. She says that floor nurses sometimes resented that she was a travel nurse because they felt she was making more money than them. She also describes how nurses would even try to make her take more patients.

“Being a vocal person, I told them I wasn’t going to take a sixth patient and I was told, ‘You can’t refuse,’” LaDonna describes one incident. She told the other nurses to call a nursing supervisor, and the nurses told her they could cancel her contract if they called. “I told them I was perfectly okay with that, and I didn’t take that sixth patient. I took five. You have to stand up for yourself, but that’s not easy for a lot of people.”

LaDonna has also dealt with more subtle bullying, like nurses refusing to help her learn how their hospital runs. This can result in decreased quality of care for patients, and if nurses don’t work together, patients’ health can suffer.

chart on nurse bullying and harassment

Bullying and harassment from patients

Patients bullying nurses is almost as frequent as nurses bullying each other, and it can be much more severe. According to the RNnetwork survey, 25 percent of harassment that nurses deal with comes from patients.

Scott Carpenter is a travel nurse currently working in progressive care units. He said patients have cussed him out, thrown things at him, and spit on him. He said talking respectfully but firmly to difficult patients has gotten him a long way.

He said he’ll tell them, “You will not talk to me like that. You came into the hospital because you were sick, and I’m here for you. Let me help you. You respect me, and I’ll respect you.”

Being a nurse, Scott is talented at understanding that patients are often mean because of the stress they’re going through. For example, he once had a patient who was particularly mean to him and other nurses. Then, Scott found out that the patient’s son had just died of a brain aneurysm two days ago. Scott apologized, gave him a hug, and they got along well after that.

Bullying and harassment from physicians and administrators

Prevent nurse bullyingAccording to the RNnetwork survey, nurses said the remaining types of harassment come from physicians, at 23 percent, and administrators, at 22 percent. Scott said he’s dealt with impatient physicians, and LaDonna has even heard doctors say, “I want a real nurse,” when they find out she’s a travel nurse.

Once, LaDonna was taking care of a patient when a secretary called a doctor to request a consultation for the patient without LaDonna’s knowledge. When the doctor called her, LaDonna was caught off guard. The doctor started asking her about the patient’s vital signs, which she was in the middle of recording. When she said she didn’t even know what the consult was for, and apologized, the doctor harshly asked, “What DO you know?”

Despite the physician’s rude behavior, LaDonna stayed focused on taking care of the patient. “I told him, ‘I know that my patient is in front of me. I know his vital signs are this. I know his family members are at bedside, and literally that’s everything I know because he just got here.’ Sometimes the answer has to be, ‘I don’t know,’ because I don’t know.”

What to do about nurse bullying and harassment

Scott and LaDonna both say that nurse bullying is the exception rather than the rule. Nurses often band together, joke around, and have a good time while handling stressful situations. Patients are immensely grateful for nurses. Doctors understand that nurses are crucial to medical care.

However, sometimes you’ll face a nurse, patient or doctor who’s downright mean. In this case, according to the Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses, you should:

  1. Recognize that the behavior is officially inappropriate.
  2. Separate yourself from the bully. This means a literal separation of avoiding them if possible, but perhaps more importantly, it means separating what your bully says from the truth. What a bully says does not define who you are.
  3. Talk to someone you trust — this could be your travel nursing recruiter or a trusted coworker.
  4. Confront the bully. Once you stand up for yourself, it’ll be harder for them to continue the behavior.

When you stand up to bullies, you’ll become stronger and your work will improve. Things can always get better, and it’s important to focus on the people who are on your side. Travel nurses in particular always have a recruiter ready to help.

What’s your advice on how to deal with nurse bullying and harassment? Share your tips in the comments below.

About the author

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Kathleen Stone

Kathleen Stone is a writer for RNnetwork from Salt Lake City, Utah. In her spare time, she loves going to the desert, trying new foods and being with family.

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