Bullies in Nursing

How Nurse Bullies are Affecting Healthcare and How to Transform Better Work Environments

When the word “bullying” comes up, the mind naturally turns to students. While bullying likely affects kids the most, unfortunately, it’s not something the rest of us are exempt to. Many people face some type of bullying in their adulthood, and workplace bullying has been noted often in the healthcare field among nurses.

Though nurses generally have a stellar external reputation when it comes to selflessness, compassion, and trustworthiness, there is an internal culture known to nurses that includes disruptive negative behaviors, abuse of their positions, hazing less experienced nurses, and general bullying. The American Nurses Association (ANA) defines bullying as “repeated, unwanted harmful actions intended to humiliate, offend, and cause distress in the recipient.” Years ago, the phrase “nurses eat their young” was coined by nursing professor Judith Meissner, referring to what novice nurses experience at the hands of their more experienced, tenured nurse co-workers. Though it may seem meaningless when it comes to the clinical work nurses do, the effects nonetheless have negative consequences including concessions to patient safety, workplace distress, and a harmful reputation of the nursing profession.

As it becomes increasingly difficult to recruit and retain nurses, a bad reputation is sure to only worsen the problem. With Baby Boomers aging and retiring, the need for healthcare workers continues to intensify, causing a feared national crisis. It’s critical that America finds a way to deal with and change this setback.

A good deal of research considers nurse bullying, nurse retention, and the shortage we face. However, few people have discussed how to avoid a complete crisis by retaining the nurses an organization has already recruited. After all, employee turnover costs organizations thousands of dollars annually. So, what can we do to make sure we’re retaining nurses and putting a stop to the bullying?

Traditionally, we celebrate retirement with parties, cake, gifts and gestures of thankfulness when anyone retires. With so much attention placed on the ending of a long career, why not put just as much energy—if not more—into the beginning of a nurse’s career? Making new nurses feel welcomed in the beginning could make all the difference in retention, healthier work environments, relations, safety, and other common issues.

Further, seasoned nurses possess a lot of knowledge gained only from years of experience. Keeping good relations between tenured and recently hired nurses could be key in putting an end to the bullying that affects nurse shortages. But how do we go about actually changing the culture across this profession? A new concept that should be factored into making this change is getting veteran nurses involved in the hiring process, so they have a higher sense of ownership over the environment they’ve been committed to for many years—and in some cases decades. Involve them from the beginning, allowing them to participate in peer interviews of nurse candidates being considered for employment. Allow them to “have a say” and choose the nurses they will work with so they are vested and have a sense of control and positive feelings that would hopefully lead to mentorship of these inexperienced newbies. Permitting them to be part of the process eliminates the competition and resentment that is sometimes felt toward one another and should create more autonomy.


About the Author

Cynthia King

Cynthia A King, PhD - Director of Client Organizational Development, PRC

Dr. King is dedicated to uncovering the underlining fundamental needs that drive employee engagement. Her research has found that employees’ perceptions and well-being improvement by providing interpersonal and workplace support. Cynthia’s research background along with her dedication to improving overall employee relations make her a strong asset at PRC.

As Director of Client Organization Development for PRC, she leads the Employee Engagement division and is responsible for the development of the Engagement Index used to help healthcare organizations find effective and efficient ways to engage employees and caregivers in their overall culture. Considered an expert in Action Planning for Excellence, she is an accomplished speaker and published author. She received a PhD in Educational Psychology with a specialization in Learning Cognition, Motivation and Instruction and a MA in Program Evaluation from the University of Texas at Austin.