How to recognize and prevent bullying in nursing

Differentiate between this type of lateral violence and incivility

It’s the end of a grueling workday and you’re still on edge, not yet recovered from the sting of a colleague’s tongue lashing. And it’s not the first time. Is this just another “bad day” on the job, or are you experiencing a form of workplace violence, aka bullying?

Forty-five percent of nurses have been verbally harassed or bullied by other nurses, while 41% have been verbally harassed or bullied by managers or administrators, according to a 2017 survey by RNnetwork.

Renee Thompson, RN
Renee Thompson, RN
Being the object of a co-worker’s venting is hardly uncommon, but is it categorized as workplace violence? Renee Thompson, DNP, RN, CMSRN, said bullying has three components: It’s targeted, it’s meant to cause harm and it happens over time. Some types of mistreatment or unkind acts on the job can actually be classified as incivility, but not necessarily bullying, she said. These include eye rolling, disrespect, gossip or general unfriendliness. “If I get testy with you in a crisis situation, it’s not bullying,” she explained. “It’s a stress response.”

Thompson, an author and speaker on workplace bullying, said most bullying is nurse to nurse, but other healthcare staff can also be bullies: the nursing assistant who’s been on the unit for 40 years and targets the new RN, or unit secretaries who victimize a particular nurse.

Cole Edmondson, DNP, RN, FACHE, NEA-BC, FAAN, CNO at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, agreed most nurses are bullied by other nurses, and most often through verbal abuse. He cited a December 2016 Texas Department of State Health Services study on workplace violence against nurses that revealed 82% of Texas nurses surveyed had experienced workplace violence, ranging from verbal abuse to physical acts.

It’s a group thing

Cole Edmonson, RN
Cole Edmonson, RN
Edmonson added bullying can target groups as well as individuals and is really a group phenomenon: one unit taking out their aggressions on another unit, or nurses on a unit bullying new hires or new graduates. Nurses in some areas or specialties may perceive or believe they are superior or “better than” another unit or specialty and degrade them, their care, their education or specialty.

Bullying isn’t just detrimental to the person being targeted, Thompson said. “If I withhold information from you and it causes you to make a mistake with a patient, or if 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.”

Edmondson said in the literature and in practice “it’s known that nurse bullying ultimately impacts the quality and safety of patient care being provided, as 75% of nurses state they are aware of errors in patient care or issues created when nurse bullying occurs.” Many organizations have chosen to take the journey to Magnet designation to work on improving work environments, empowering nurses and creating excellent outcomes.

In 2015, the ANA, which defines bullying as “repeated, unwanted harmful actions intended to humiliate, offend and cause distress in the recipient,” issued a position statement saying bullying “is a very serious issue that threatens patient safety, RN safety and the nursing professional as a whole.”

Time to take a stand

Linda Olender, RN
Linda Olender, RN
Some healthcare institutions are facing bullying head on, while others are reducing the incidence through cultivating a certain culture, said Lynda Olender, PhD, RN, MA, NEA-BC, associate dean, Hunter-Bellvue School of Nursing (New York) Graduate Programs, and a Distinguished Lecturer in Nursing.

Olender said organizations with caring cultures that follow the code of ethics and practice shared governance have a lower incidence of perceived bullying. Such organizations would experience fewer grievances overall because staff feel more valued, she said.

Edmonson asserted leadership should handle bullying by empowering workers through policies and procedures, making them aware bullying is not okay.

One reason bullying continues is that often those who witness or suspect the adverse behavior look the other way or decline to become involved. Nurses can and should stop that malicious pattern.

“If you see a co-worker bullied, step in and say wait a minute — time out,” said Thompson. “Intervene in that kind of experience. Typically no one is speaking up. The no. 1 most powerful behavior is for the witness to speak up and support the person who is being targeted.”

Rather than turn away, reach out to a colleague who is the target of a bully. “We can all be ‘upstanders’ by intervening in situations or reaching out to a colleague who is the target of a bully,” said Edmonson. “These situations don’t just stop when the bullying behavior is over. They have long lasting effects on mental health and one’s feelings of safety and security.” As nurses learn to identify and confront harmful behaviors toward themselves and coworkers, workplace violence, including bullying of nurses, will not be allowed to persist. Nurses — and patients — will be safer and secure.

Be proactive when being bullied

According to a fact sheet on, 21% of nurses leave their jobs due to incivility and bullying. Rather than becoming a part of this group of nurses, Edmondson said the problem must be confronted at all levels across the organization. “It creates an untenable situation for nurses and those who witness it, including patients and visitors.”

If a nurse feels he or she is being bullied, it’s important to let the bully know how that behavior makes him or her feel, said Olender. “Think of yourself as a professional with the goal of being educated about bullying and how to handle it.”

“Pause and take a deep breath,” said Edmonson. “You want to act professionally, not let the situation cause you to decompensate.”

Practice self awareness, observing how the situation is provoking an emotional response, recommended Olender.

Edmonson said if a nurse is comfortable doing so, he or she can address it directly with the person. If that’s not possible, Olender recommended practicing a response using role play on his or her own or with a friend.

If the nurse is not comfortable with the direct approach or if a direct discussion does not work, report it to a manager, supervisor or preceptor. If the manager is the problem, said Olender, seek the support of someone else, an educator or someone in human resources.

The nurse should find out the organization’s policy that addresses behaviors that undermine a culture of safety, and make sure he or she is clear on how the person has violated that policy. Then document the experiences with that person, stated Thompson.

Always document the situation: What happened, who said what and who witnessed the incident. Edmondson stresses that documenting needs to happen immediately since one’s impressions and memories are often less precise over time.

New nurses are an easy target for bullies, just because they’re new, noted Thompson. Preventing this starts with the job hunt, so new nurses should do their homework about the healthcare organization to which they are applying, said Olender. “Do they have a caring culture, a code of ethics, policies and procedure in place? Do they have shared governance?” If they do, the likelihood of bullying is probably lower, she said.

Some units can be toxic, Olender said. Ask the right questions in the interview process, such as how scheduling conflicts are handled. She said it’s a positive sign if unit nursing staff are part of the interviewing process, as it shows the organization is empowering the staff to make decisions about colleagues.

Ask if there are policies and procedures for workplace violence. Look at their orientation — what do they do to insure a healthy work environment?

Practice prevention personally as well. “Know what bullies look for in a target,” said Renee Thompson. Bullies look for “nurses who they don’t think will confront or challenge them, who seem insecure or nervous, who are passive communicators — anything that makes them different,” she said. For example, a BSN new hire might find him or herself as a target because most of the other nurses on the unit have associate’s degrees.

A nurse should act confident when starting a new position, Thompson said. Hold your head high. Shake hands of new people with confidence.

Look up the free online resource, the Civility Tool-kit, which addresses bullying behavior across the continuum.


Courses Related to ‘Bullying’

WEB296: Nurse Bullying: Stereotype or Reality? What Can We Do About It? (1 contact hr)
October is Bullying Prevention Month. Have you ever felt bullied in the workplace? How has the \\”nurses eat their young\\” idiom survived through nursing history? In the past few years, interesting research has emerged ranging from workplace aggression to incivility to nurse bullying. Knowledge is power. Become equipped to professionally challenge bullying in the workplace and empowered to demonstrate good examples of nursing leadership in our profession!

CE305-60: Helping Children Who Are Being Teased and Bullied (1 contact hr)
Surveys have shown that about 20% to 28% of American youths (middle school and high school age) report being bullied. Research studies have shown that those who are chronically teased or bullied can suffer short- and long-term psychological consequences and physical problems. This educational activity will help you to distinguish between being teased and bullied and to present effective strategies to help youths, families, and school personnel prevent or respond to harsh teasing or bullying.

About the author

Karen Schmidt, RN 

Karen Schmidt, RN, is a freelance writer.

2 responses to “How to recognize and prevent bullying in nursing”

  1. I was a victim of bullying vpby nurses at a facility when the 2008 housing crash happened. The nurse would verbally tell her colleagues behingpd my back within earshot what a horrible RN I was. I was almost at a point of getting fired and went before the nurse manager. I attempted to get my old position back if I was that inept at this one. I ended up going on stress leave and had a conference call with them including professionals who were on my side. The end result? The nurse manager was laid off, as well as some some old timers ( they make too much money), and I got my dignity back. I have a position now where I have boundaries and am respected by families and nurses alike???!

  2. Every person you encounter within your profession can truly make a difference with how they perceive the value of their contributions and efforts by vesting time, and sharing knowledge and experience. It’s easy to turn a blind eye and allow a fellow colluege to struggle, after all, why should they be worthy of not enduring the struggles and lessons earned like a right of passage. I”ll share my beliefs on this. How are we preserving our profession as nurses, when we judge our own without any regard to how we may potentially impact someone’s dream to make an difference guiding a patient towards restoring their health? The journey and struggles one makes to become a nurse may bring hard life lessons, but the very few who stand out and realize vesting in our professions future are the very few that keep hope..hope for passing knowledge and wisdom, along with passing the torch to the future generations of our nursing profession.

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