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Bullying: It Happens to Nursing Students, Too

Created Aug 31 2015, 08:00 PM by Lippincott Solutions
  • nurse bullies
  • bullying
  • nursing student
  • nursing schools
  • nurse bullying
  • American Nurses Association
  • ANA Code of Ethics
  • nursing education
  • ANA

Tuesday, September 1, 2015
How Nurse Bullying is Detrimental to Nursing Education

Bullying is a hot topic in schools across the country. Walk into any elementary school and you’ll see posters on the walls that help children recognize bullying behavior and learn what to do if they see a classmate being bullied or if they are bullied themselves. Parents, teachers and school administrators are no longer turning a blind eye, but are instead trying to actively combat what used to be considered a somewhat “normal” part of growing up.

However, bullying can happen anywhere -- not just in the classroom or on the playground. Nursing students are also victims of bullying and it has a significantly detrimental effect on nursing education. In one US study, almost 96% of 4th year nursing students reported that they had experienced at least one instance of bullying while attending nursing school.

What Defines Nurse Bullying?

Experts have defined bullying as a concept of incivility, such as rude or disruptive behaviors, threatening behaviors, and/or physical and psychological abuse. The bullying can be characterized by repeated, negative acts consciously committed by one or more persons against another person. These may be direct acts such as physical and verbal abuse or indirect acts such as purposeful exclusion. In addition, there exists a significant imbalance of real or perceived power between the person who is bullying and the individual who is being bullied. This traumatic behavior affects the student’s capacity to learn, his sense of well-being, and can cause feelings of alienation, lack of control over their learning environment, low self-esteem and powerlessness.

Lingering Effects of Nursing Student Bullying

When a student who has experienced bullying enters the workplace, she can continue to be traumatized. The victim may develop problems sleeping, exhibit depression, develop posttraumatic stress syndrome, have low morale, use sick time excessively and eventually leave the profession.

What Can Nursing Schools do to Prevent Bullying?

Whether the bully is a fellow nursing student, an instructor, or a clinician, students who experience such incivilities often undergo psychological and/or physiological distress. If left unaddressed, the bullying can even progress into a threatening situation. So, what can nursing schools do to prevent their students from being bullied?  And, what can the victims themselves do to shield themselves from bullies?

The American Nurses Association (ANA) clearly outlines the ethical mandate for all nurses to act in accordance with provision 1.5 of the ANA’s Code of Ethics for Nursing with Interpretive Statements. This includes, among other areas, “respect for all individuals with whom nurses interact, compassionate and caring relationships with colleagues and others, and a standard of conduct that precludes prejudicial actions, any form of harassment or threatening behavior, and disregard for the effect of one’s actions on another.”

In response to increasing evidence of bullying within the nursing profession, multiple regulatory agencies and professional nursing organizations have demanded immediate and clear action to address all forms of horizontal and lateral violence such as bullying, and to develop effective individual and institutional-wide interventions.

Nursing schools need to create a positive, safe clinical learning environment. It is critical to promoting nursing students’ self-esteem and professional engagement. It also reinforces their sense of security, belonging, empowerment, confidence, cognitive processes, and continued motivation to learn. Schools also need to adopt the models we see working in grade schools: zero tolerance policies and education on bullying behavior. Victims need to feel protected and secure in early reporting of incidents. Schools need to recognize the risk factors and employ early interventions.

Did you experience bullying when you were a nursing student? Or, did you witness bullying? What do you think nursing schools (and healthcare organizations) can do to prevent bullying behavior? We want to hear your thoughts in the comments below.


  • I was enrolled in an LPN program at Assabet Valley in Hudson Mass. I was bullied by the program director and one of my instructors. They harassed me on many occasions and the director told me that she did not trust me and that "if I felt like people were watching me, that's because they are". As part of the program we were to receive the privilege of witnessing 2 surgeries and my instructor told me she was going to have me just spend the time in clinical and was not going to be allowed to go. I was very upset about the decision she made, for no reason, and after begging her, she allowed me to go to only one. The director called me into her very small and dimly lit office on several occasions to ridicule me and on a couple occasions to threaten to remove me from the program. The program was to last 10 months. I devoted my entire life to the program, giving all of my time to read and study. I got 100% on many of my final exams and my report cards were always mainly A's and a couple of B's. I had perfect attendance until one day when she told me not to come in to class but instead to stay home and write a journal of why on an occasion I stepped into an elevator and back out. After 8 months, with 10 weeks to go, she left a note for me to come to her office and invited about 3 other instructors and they basically ganged up on me and gave me a paper with several false accusations on it which I believe she wanted me to sign. I stood up from that little table and left the program that day. I believed she was going to kick me out anyways. I was scheduled to take several final exams that week that I had already studied for and was prepared to do well on. Those classes would have been on my transcript as completed courses if I had gotten to take the exams. I later requested a transcript of my grades to try and finish the program elsewhere and was given one closed copy and one open. Upon review i realized that she attempted to leave off a course i had completed (which I had/have proof of, as well as my grades). It turned out that the woman at the other school said the only way to transfer credits was to get a letter of recommendation from the director of the program. I emailed her and she ignored me. I emailed another of the instructors who also ignored the email, phone calls with voicemails, and a hand delivered letter asking for his letter of recommendation. He was a great teacher and I truly believe that if he gave me that letter, or responded, that his job would have been on the line. I surely suffered ptsd and had trouble sleeping for close to a year. I still have lost faith in the education system surrounding that program and most likely many others. The message that remains is that it didn't matter how hard I tried or what I devoted to my education. That woman can do whatever she wants and get away with it. I contacted lawyers via email and got no responses. I don't think they saw money in a case such as this. For the record, I am a single white female with low income. -Dawn

  • I'm really sorry you had to go through that. I'm reading this now, because I was googling research articles about nursing students being bullied by instructors, as I have been since day one of my program. It is so out of hand and I have no one to turn to. I'm so discouraged at the educational system, I can't fathom what is happening at my school to even be legal. I'm glad you stood up for yourself, however the amount of hard work, time, and money that was robbed from you isn't justifiable. I hope you acted further to get what you deserved, and earned.

  • Im about to put in a formal complaint tomorrow about some issus ive had. Feeling in two minds about it as i still have another week there on prac but im already dreading going in, and i feel like i need to as I dont beleive my clinical supervisor will give and unbiased final report. All because i stood up for myself to a preceptor. Any one know what the uni does when there are several complaints about poor conduct towards students in a facility?