Nurses have ranked at the top of Gallup’s list of the most trusted professions every year for the past decade and a half (with the exception of 2001, when 9/11-shaken Americans ranked firefighters highest in ethics and honesty). Increasingly, however, the nursing profession is also becoming known for a less noble quality: bullying.
Last spring, the magazine Marie Claire exposed nursing’s “silent secret” with a nearly 3,000-word feature detailing tales of harshness, hostility and harassment by nurses toward nurses.
“The prevalence of nurse bullying is staggering,” reported Alexandra Robbins, author of the article as well as the book The Nurses: A Year of Secrets, Drama, and Miracles with the Heroes of the Hospital. “Researchers say that at least 85 percent of nurses have been verbally abused by a fellow nurse. Worldwide, experts estimate that one in three nurses quits her job because of bullying and that bullying—not wages—is the major cause of a global nursing shortage.”
Noting that nurse bullying is receiving its fair share of attention, nurse researchers Diane Wieland, PhD, RN, PMHCNS-BC, CNE, from La Salle University, Philadelphia, and Janice M. Beitz, PhD, RN, CS, CNOR, CWOCN, CRNP, MAPWCA, FAAN, Rutgers University in Camden, NJ, investigated the dynamic from a less studied yet crucial angle—resiliency. How do nurses who are bullied bounce back from the experience and move beyond it? What does it take to overcome bullying?
To find out, they conducted lengthy interviews with 17 nurse faculty members who were bullied by peers and now consider themselves resilient. Although the study, which appeared in the November/December issue of Nurse Educator, focused on nurse bullying in academia, the strategies cited by bullying survivors are applicable to nurses in a variety of settings.
Granted, this strategy may be easier in some workplaces than others and is difficult to sustain indefinitely. Still, it was a common practice used by the bullied nurse educators and included both physical and mental prevention. Taking different hallways and, when possible, working off campus were both approaches cited by nurses. Think about how you could adapt the maneuver in your situation. Could you take your lunch in a different setting? Disconnect from bullies on social media? The specifics may differ, but the takeaway is the same: Whatever distance you can put between yourself and the bully, the better.
Nurse educators who were bullied sought support from family, friends and colleagues they got along with and admired. Unfortunately, bullying is sometimes tolerated by other nurses as “just the way it is,” so don’t seek support with the expectation that the other person can or will make the bullying stop. Self-care activities, such as church, music, meditation, and reading about bullying were also mentioned as supportive to resilience.
Interestingly, reporting the bullying to a superior was not a strategy mentioned in the study. (Confronting the bully, when necessary, was.) As the authors note, “bullies in the workplace are often protected by those in power, [and] abuse becomes tolerated and normalized.”
Nurses fed up with their treatment found interviewing with and entertaining job offers from other workplaces empowering.
“None who had left the school where they were bullied felt guilty in retrospect,” the researchers wrote. “Choosing where to work and being happy at the new school were described frequently. If that involved resignation and a new ‘right’ worksite, they perceived it as a positive action and a form of enlightenment.”
Not all nurses in the study had switched jobs, however. Depending on the area, new positions weren’t always available. Some said they were still waiting for the right fit. They considered their staying despite the bullying a form of defiance, yet the researchers noted the negative physical and psychological repercussions of being bullied continued.
All nurses interviewed expected to leave their job eventually.
Some nurses found solace in focusing on the results of their job evaluations; others, through presenting at conferences and “supporting the professional persona.” Focusing on accomplishments helped bullied nurses discern reality from the skewed picture bullies try so hard to paint.
Surrounding yourself with positive peers at professional meetings and making new connections will likely help your mindset. On the practical side, it may also lead you out of your toxic workplace into a better job at a healthier place.
After nurses moved on to new jobs, most tended to rid their surroundings of mementoes and other visual reminders of their former workplace and the abusive treatment they endured there. That doesn’t mean, though, they left the experience entirely in the past.
“Reflection played a major role in … healing,” the researchers noted. “Blaming self and shame effects decreased markedly when the faculty member had the chance to experience a good environment and see the toxicity of the past worksite.”
Having overcome bullying, some nurses proceeded with a determination to create a new positive work environment and provide positive role modeling. Others focused on “feeding the intellectual self.” Although some experienced PTSD-type responses (unresolved anger, hypervigilance, excessively apologetic over the smallest issues), most ultimately felt better equipped to handle future challenges.
As Drs. Wieland and Beitz put it, “Resilience to adversity was perceived to be a positive outcome of a horrendous experience.”