Some may think that bullying stops after high school — it happens to kids, not adults. Unfortunately, more than one third of the U.S. workforce experiences bullying at some point in their career, according to ICD-10 Monitor. In the field of healthcare, more than 2 million nurses have been a target, witness or bully, notes Health Workforce Institute. It’s so common, there’s even a saying for it: “Nurses eat their young.” It is up to you as a nurse to recognize workplace bullying and prevent it in your practice.

What Is Bullying?

Gary Namie, Ph.D., a social psychologist and anti-workplace bullying advocate defines workplace bullying as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators.”

What Are the Signs of Bullying?

Bullying comes in many forms: physical, verbal, social and psychological. It can happen in person or online and can even lead to sexual harassment and abuse. More often than not it takes the form of verbal or non-verbal behavior or triangulation. Bullying behaviors cover a broad range of actions, according to American Nurse, including:

  • Criticizing in front of others
  • Excluding
  • Hazing
  • Gossiping
  • Intimidating
  • Name-calling
  • Withholding information or giving false information
  • Yelling or screaming

Are There Different Types of Bullying?

Bullying can be vertical (downward or upward) or horizontal (lateral). Vertical violence occurs between two individuals at different levels of power, such as a manager and employee or a nurse and a physician. Lateral violence is between individuals at the same level.

What Is the Impact of Bullying?

Bullying impacts both the victim and onlookers. It threatens “teamwork, morale, communication, and, most importantly, patient safety,” says American Nurse. Bullying creates a toxic work environment and may cause stress-related health issues, unsafe working conditions, and absenteeism, burnout, and high staff turnover, according to The Source.

“Nurses eat their young” refers to the hazing of new nurses by older, more experienced nurses, but nurses of all ages and experience levels can be affected by bullying behavior. Bullies often lack self-confidence and self-esteem and they may feel incompetent, so even a confident, experienced nurse may become a target.

How Can I Stop Bullying?

There are multiple ways to stop and prevent bullying. Here are just a few:

Tell the bully to stop. If you feel safe, talk to the person. Bullies don’t usually expect people to stand up to them. Sometimes they don’t realize their behavior is damaging.

Talk to someone you trust. If the bully is a co-worker, start with your manager. If it is your manager, go through the chain of command or reach out to human resources. Provide specific examples and documentation.

Stand up and speak out. Stop rumors, defend your colleagues and offer support. Staying quiet is being complicit, notes

Suggest education or workshops. Look for ways to create a positive work environment. Perhaps suggest educational sessions related to bullying or discussions about emotional intelligence, effective communication or conflict management.

How Can a BSN Help?

Nurses need education beyond clinical skills — leadership, conflict resolution, communication and problem-solving are all useful when combating bullying. Additionally, creating a positive work culture and changing your facility’s policies can be easier if you are in a position of authority (charge nurse, supervisor/manager, etc.). A BSN program prepares you to assume these leadership positions.

Every nurse, but especially leaders, must learn the skills to deal with disruptive behavior to create a positive, professional workplace.

“A healthy work environment is primarily the responsibility of the leader. The leader stewards the vision for the department or organization, developing and implementing a plan to achieve the vision and hold people accountable to the work along the way. The people within a department or an organization are the most precious and valuable assets within the organization; leaders have the great responsibility of cultivating a psychologically-safe environment, which is a precursor to a highly-reliable, zero clinical harm environment.”

Joni Watson, DNP, MBA, RN, OCN

Vice President, Patient Care Services

Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Lake Pointe

Rowlett, Texas

Are you being bullied? Do you see bullying at your workplace? The American Nurses Association (ANA) says, “All registered nurses and employers in all settings, including practice, academia, and research must collaborate to create a culture of respect, free of incivility, bullying, and workplace violence.” While your employer may provide support when it comes to bullying, it is up to you to take action against bullying. Arm yourself to stop the cycle of nurse bullying.

Learn more about the University of Maine at Fort Kent’s online RN to BSN program.


ICD-10 Monitor: The Side Effects of Workplace Bullying in Healthcare

Health Workforce Institute: Are You a Target, Witness, or Bully at Work?

Workplace Bullying Institute: The WBI Definition of Workplace Bullying

Healthy Workforce Institute: How Bullies Use Triangulation as a Weapon in the Workplace

American Nurse: Not Just “Eating Our Young”: Workplace Bullying Strikes Experienced Nurses, Too

The Sentinel Watch: Dr. Renee Thompson: How Incivility Leads to Bullying

The Source: Taking a Stand Against Bullying Nurse Bullying: Stand up and Speak Out

NCBI: Nurse Managers’ Emotional Intelligence and Effective Leadership: A Review of Current Evidence

Oncology Nursing News: Lateral Violence in Nursing Can Take Many Forms

American Nurses Association: Incivility, Bullying, and Workplace Violence

Watson, J. (January 2020) Email interview