Bullying in Nursing: Why Nurses 'Eat their Young' and What to Do About It

female nursing looking stressed

Imagine being a new nurse on your first day at a hospital. You are anxious about treating a difficult patient or accurately completing all of your medical records. The last thing you want to be thinking about is whether your peers are going to give you a hard time. Unfortunately, bullying in nursing happens a lot more than most people think!

Nursing is a profession that is dedicated to caring for others and is consistently rated as one of the most trustworthy fields by patients. This dedication to the wellbeing of their patients makes it even more shocking to hear that 65 percent of nurses surveyed by American Nurse Today have witnessed some form of nursing incivility.

If patients can expect kind and courteous bedside manner from their care providers, why can’t nurses count on other nurses?

We spoke to Rasmussen University faculty and Renee Thompson, a renowned expert on incivility in nursing, to dig into this precise question. We also provide some expert tips on how nurses can prevent it from happening to them.

Do nurses really ‘eat their young’?

“Nurses eating their young” is a common phrase referring to the sometimes high levels of hazing or initiation new nurses experience at the hands of their more experienced coworkers. But this type of behavior is not unique to nursing. It’s been uncovered in fields from doctors to police officers and even teachers.

It may be commonplace in many professions, but that doesn’t make it okay. And it feels even worse in an industry that is dedicated to caring and compassion, Thompson says.

The good news is that nurses are standing up against this abhorrent behavior and speaking out with solutions to end it. Even by reading articles like this, you are taking the first step in preventing nurse bullying from becoming an issue for you or your peers.

Why does bullying in nursing happen?

In most cases, nurse bullying is the result of ineffective communication and coping skills in a high stakes environment, says Valerie Palarski, adjunct nursing faculty for Rasmussen University Online. It’s no secret that nursing school is challenging for students.

Those challenges will only continue in a job where people’s actual lives are on the line. It takes practice to retain composure in a high stakes environment. If students don’t learn how to cope with that stress in school, they are setting themselves up for failure once they enter the workplace.

But bullying is not always the result of someone purposefully picking on a peer. Sometimes it’s just an instance of a nurse trying to be helpful. There are mentors who believe that if they are hard on new nurses, it will help them become more competent and stronger overall care providers, Thompson says. The problem with that training tactic is that it sidesteps the theory that competence comes from confidence.

By shattering the new nurse’s confidence, the mentor is actually doing more harm than good.

If bullying happens to new nurses, does it happen to students during clinicals?

It’s not common but it does happen, says Carolyn Wright, dean of nursing at the Rasmussen University Kansas campuses. Most often it occurs at times when the faculty or charge nurse isn’t looking.

Wright recalls one situation in which a student reported being bullied during clinicals. She went to the hospital site to investigate and hid out of view while the student was doing her rounds. Just as the student described, staff nurses jeered at her when no one was looking. Wright immediately reached out to the charge nurse and the situation was remedied.

Wrights’s actions are reflective of how most nurse educators handle these types of situations. “We are here to help,” she says. Reaching out to faculty directly is just one way to ensure you have a positive experience out in the field during clinicals.

What can nurses do about incivility?

Palarski’s story demonstrates how valuable it is to speak up if something is out of place. Your faculty and deans are there to make sure you have the best possible learning environment on and off campus.

But there are a few things you can do yourself as well. Learning effective communication strategies is a great way to nip negative comments in the bud, Thompson says. She offers several scripted dialogues in her book, “Do No Harm” and on her blog, for how to talk bullies.

1. Prepare with your instructor ahead of time

Rasmussen faculty members offer “cognitive rehearsal,” Palarski says. This means that faculty members walk through different scenarios with students to prepare them for situations where they may feel uncomfortable.

2. Utilize an assertive communication style

It is human nature to either back down or get defensive when we feel we are attacked. But that is only going to make things worse and most likely will lead to further misunderstandings. Some possible responses include: “I need your support, not your criticism,” or directly stating “I need help with X, Y and Z,” Thompson says.

3. Convey confidence

Sometimes something as simple as body language can prevent a situation from happening. Walk tall and look people in the eye, Thompson says. This will show the more experienced nurses that you mean business and are there to learn.

4. Find a way to work as a team

Remind the nurse that the focus should be on what’s in the best interest of the patient. Questions like “How can we work together?” will encourage cooperation, Thompson says.

Preparation is the key to a successful clinical experience

As they say, knowledge is power. Nurse educators are here to teach you everything you need to know to be an amazing nurse, Wright says. There are going to be some tough things that you will have to deal with as a nurse and part of your education should and does include preparation for that.

If you come to school with a positive attitude and willingness to learn, says Wright, “[Rasmussen University] can teach you the rest.” As new nurses enter the workforce and continue to bring a voice to the issue of bullying in nursing, they are securing a bright future for one of the nation’s most respected careers.

Nurses recognize that it’s not just the way they treat their patients that defines them. Every interaction counts. Their continual drive to make their profession better is just one of the many inspiring qualities of the nurses. If you think you have what it takes, check out these other reasons to become a nurse.

To learn more about the educational paths at Rasmussen University, check out the School of Nursing home page.

About the author

Katy Katz

Katy is a Content Marketing Specialist at Collegis Education who writes student-focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen University. She enjoys creating engaging content to help former, current and future students on their path to a rewarding education.


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