5 Common Examples of Workplace Bullying in Nursing

Woman in a blue shirt that is sad due to workplace bullying.

Today, bullying is more common and rampant than ever before, and it’s showing up everywhere from online to inside professional workplaces. Some professions have a worse bullying problem than others, and the types of workplace bullying and where they occur may even surprise you. One profession that experiences bullying pretty commonly is nursing. In fact, workplace bullying in nursing is such a problem that there are actually several common examples of bullying amongst nurses that all nurses should look out for. Check out these 5 common examples of workplace bullying in nursing so that you’ll be prepared to see it, stop it, and report it if it ever happens to you or someone you know in the course of your career.

Why Nursing Can Be a Hot Bed for Bullying

It may seem odd that a profession entirely dedicated to caring for and helping others can be a place where bullying abounds, but it actually makes more sense than it seems to. While nursing is a profession all about helping others, it is also a career that exposes individuals to highly charged emotions, various high-pressure environments, and high stress. When working in this sort of “pressure cooker,” emotions can reach a breaking point, leading to aggression and bullying that runs horizontally (nurse to nurse) or even vertically (nurse to patient) in some of the worst cases. Workplace bullying in nursing can lead to mental trauma such as self-doubt, fear, paranoia, and anxiety as well as physical issues such as poor sleep and even higher stress levels for the nurse being victimized.

How can a nurse tell when they are being bullied, however? Some nurses may be experiencing bullying in the workplace and are not aware of it because certain actions do not always fit the traditional idea of bullying, while other nurses may not recognize bully behavior because the workplace is the last place they would expect to encounter it. Whatever the reason, some nurses are unable to identify whether certain behaviors from colleagues can be classified as bullying or not. To help nurses determine whether bullying is actually taking place, the American Nurses Association (ANA) highlights violence and incivility as bullying behaviors and defines bullying itself in an official statement on bullying amongst nurses.

5 Common Examples of Workplace Bullying in Nursing

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1. Overt Bullying

One common form of bullying is overt bullying. This is the easiest form of bullying to recognize because it lacks subtlety and is often done in front of others to cause humiliation and emotional harm. It is blunt and clearly disrespectful and is often hard to deny. Some examples of overt bullying include

  • Verbal Criticism and Name-Calling: This is usually done in front of other colleagues or your superiors in an effort to humiliate you, make you seem incompetent, or generally hurt your feelings.
  • Intimidation: This is done to scare you into silence or subordination.
  • Blaming: Another attempt to make you seem incompetent in your field.
  • Ethnic Jokes or Slurs: This is an attempt to “other” you and distance you from the main fold.
  • Finding Fault: This is an attempt to discredit your abilities as well as another way making you look incompetent to other colleagues and superiors.
  • Threatening: This is a clear form of bullying that is meant to scare or coerce you into certain actions such as resignation or stepping down from certain duties in the workplace. Threats may be written or verbal and can be clear and direct or subtle and implied.
  • Physical Violence: This is a clear act of bullying, though likely less common because it can end in persecution, firing, or arrest for the perpetrator.

2. Covert Bullying

Unlike overt bullying, covert bullying is a bit harder to identify. You may be unsure if this type of bullying is really happening or not as it is subtle and often undetectable to those who are not directly experiencing it. In fact, covert bullies may seem outwardly nice, kind, and helpful, but there are certain behaviors that give away their true colors. These  include:

Sabotage: Sabotage can be subtle, but you can often tell when it has happened when you have been careful to do a task correctly and find that after someone has gotten involved, everything falls apart but the blame falls on you. Sabotage may look like gossiping behind your back, bad-talking you to superiors, and making your abilities and competence out be something they are not. In short, sabotage is meant to ruin your accomplishments and lower trust in you, ultimately putting your position in danger.

  • Excluding Others: If you ever feel like the odd one out at work and like there are cliques you have no way of breaking into, you may be experiencing bullying. Covert bullies will work to keep certain people they deem “not good enough” out of the fold, either on assignments, issues or even after work activities. This is done to make you feel unwanted and isolated.
  • Unfair Assignments/Extra Work: If you find you are being assigned a lot more work than others or given unfair assignments, you may be being bullied. This form of covert bullying may be done by your superiors or senior colleagues. Again, this is done to either put you off your regular work or highlight an area of incompetence in an unfair and unrealistic way.
  • Undermining: A healthy work environment is one where colleagues support other colleagues in any way possible. This means helping them out, letting them know when they are making or have made a mistake, and offering praise where praise is due. If your colleagues or superior are constantly undermining your decisions, ideas, and accomplishments, you are likely being covertly bullied.
  • Downplaying Accomplishments: Finally, downplaying accomplishments is another way to make you seem incompetent or “less special” in the workplace. Not only is this hurtful, but it can hold you back in your career.

3. Power Dynamics

Some nurses may be experiencing bullying through power dynamics. This means that superiors or colleagues with more seniority use their position to control newer nurses. They may try to direct and control your assignments, breaks, and shifts, constantly report you to the supervisor for perceived lack of productivity or competence, may push impossible deadlines, and may withhold knowledge and help in hopes that you will fail. By using their position to control and direct you, they are not treating you as an equal and are, in fact, bullying you.

4. Undermining Personal Values/Beliefs

If a colleague or superior is ignoring or exploiting your personal values and beliefs in the workplace, it is considered bullying. This may mean criticizing your morals and beliefs, assigning you tasks that fly in the face of your morals and beliefs, ridiculing you, ignoring concerns you may voice, or using your morals and beliefs as reasons why you cannot be a good nurse. In the workplace, these actions are a form of discrimination and should not be tolerated.

5. Withholding Help

If senior nurses or supervisors are withholding help or information from newer nurses, this is also a form of bullying. It is done with clear intent to harm because it often leaves the victim at a loss of what to do, which can, in turn, harm the patient. Superiors and colleagues are meant to help one another and work collaboratively at times to do their job well, which is why the exchange of information is so important in nursing. If you have a superior or colleague who refuses to mentor or guide new staff, who refuses to help those who are struggling, and who seeks to increase uncertainty and worry in new nurses, you are likely dealing with a bully.

Learn more about examples of bullying in nursing here and here.

What You Can Do to Change the Narrative

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So now that you how to identify the most common examples of workplace bullying in nursing, what can you do about it? There are a few simple but effective actions you can take to make the workplace a safer and healthier place for everyone:

  • Stay Vigilant: Keep an eye out for the mentioned scenarios in the workplace.
  • Stand Up: If it is safe to do so, intervene directly during a bullying scenario.
  • Speak Out: Make bullying known in the workplace by reporting it to your superiors and anyone else who can help.
  • Take Action: Take action but speaking up about bullying – this may look like setting up meetings, seminars, and facilitation that address workplace bullying in nursing. If someone is convicted of bullying in the workplace, take the appropriate steps to punish or remove them.
  • Workplace bullying in nursing doesn’t have to happen if all nurses are ready to fight against it whenever and however they can.

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