What to Do When Your Nurse Partner is a Bully

Article Categories: Environment & Legal and Ethics

When you work with a bully nurse, life as a nursing assistant becomes dreadful and miserable. You drag yourself to your station and wish you’d be able to avoid this bully for the entire shift. But, sadly, you can’t do that because nurses and CNAs are partners, and as buddies, you are supposed to work together. There is constant humiliation, intimidation, and verbal abuse. It can wear you down so much that you cry yourself to sleep.

Bullying in nursing is not fresh news at all. Since the term, “Nurses eat their young” was coined in 1986 by Judith Meissner, now professor emeritus at Bucks County Community College in Pennsylvania, it has then been widely used to refer to a culture of fear where more experienced nurses harass and intimidate new hires. Sadly, their ‘young’ are not the only victims. Should we also say that they ‘devour’ their assistants, too?

Bullying is such a sensitive and controversial issue because it leaves scars to whoever experience it. The reason is quite understandable. Bullying spans a multitude of negative effects.

1. It negatively affects patient outcomes.

A bullied CNA is out of focus and emotionally drained, leaving almost no room for quality patient care. A grave encounter with the nurse intimidator can trigger self-centered reactions, such as repeated thoughts of bad karma befalling on the latter. The CNA often thinks of ways on how to get even.

The distracted nursing assistant is now prone to errors. The patients are also mostly left to fend for themselves. These circumstances often lead to compromised patient safety.

2. It decreases the victim’s quality of life.

Bullying causes physical and psychological damage to the victim. CNAs who work with bully nurses tend to have a poor appetite, unrestful sleep, and low energy. In turn, they develop poor immunity and get burnt out at work. They also suffer from digestive problems as well as cardiovascular issues such as hypertension.

A victim’s mental health is affected, too. Many victims report severe anxiety and suffer Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

3. Bullying in the nursing workforce prompts the victims to leave their jobs.

Harassment in the workplace also affects the organization as a whole. The bullied staff is forced to give up their career for some badly needed peace of mind. An excellent employee who resigns is a big loss to the institution because it results in staff shortages. When a staff member leaves, it is very costly to find a suitable replacement. Lack of staff also means increased patient loads, which in turn leads to poor quality patient care.

If you find yourself experiencing abuse, humiliation, and harassment, use the points below to guide you and help you cope:

1. Confirm. Make sure it’s bullying.

Renee Thompson, DNP, RN, CMSRN, a renowned author, and keynote speaker on nurse bullying, suggests that the first thing to do is to make sure that you are the bully's unique target. Is the nurse mean only to you or to most people?

If they single you out and frequently shame you, and if they intentionally make your job a lot more difficult than it should be, then it is a clear sign of bullying.

2. Review your agency’s policy.

Other institutions refer to bullying as lateral or horizontal violence. Read and understand its contents to give you a clear idea of which of its terms have been violated. You can ask other senior nurses or the manager for help if this step is too overwhelming.

3. Detach.

As much as you can help it, continue doing a good job and condition yourself not to be affected by your nurses’ appalling actions. This strategy effectively protects you from committing errors, which is exactly what the bully wants.

4. Label the behavior.

When the bully makes every encounter personal and damaging, name the behavior. Be straightforward and say, “Stop. This is harassment.”

5. Document.

When the bullying behavior continues, your next step is to document. Proper documentation will be your ticket to winning an administrative case or a legal battle, should it come to this point. Start taking notes of details, such as the dates, times, and locations of bullying incidents. Put the names of witnesses, too, regardless if they want to help you or not.

Describe each case objectively, meaning just write down facts. Do not include your opinion. Gather evidence, such as harassing texts and emails. You might be tempted to record your conversations. Before you do so, check existing laws and make sure you’re not doing something illegal.

6. Confront.

Thompson also recommends confronting your nurse bully about their behavior. “This is a tough one, and you might not be willing to do this,” she admits.

Perhaps this is the most challenging step. Even running the confrontation scene in your mind can trigger anger, fear, and stress. But if you must, gather your inner strength and follow the steps below:

a. Ask for a few minutes of their time. Schedule it.

b. Start by saying that your working relationship is important for patient safety. Proceed to say something like "I want to talk about something in our relationship that upsets me…"

c. Give examples of bullying incidents.

d. Tell them that their behavior is unacceptable and that they violate agency policies.

e. Ask them to stop the aggressive behavior because you need to work together.

7. File a formal complaint.

If the confrontation did not make the bully nurse stop, follow your agency's policies on how to take it up to the management. Reporting bullying incidents is encouraged because it can help dispel the culture of fear and create healthy working relationships.

8. Leave.

If all else fails and you are left with no other choice, ask to be reassigned to another department or seek another role, such as in home health.

Is it worth sacrificing your physical, emotional, and mental health? Or is leaving too much of a burden? Whatever your decision will be, stand strong and firm. But if you can manage, take a different path away from the bully.

Bullying is always traumatic and destructive. It should not happen, especially in workplaces where compassion and kindness are expected to prevail. CNAs must protect themselves, co-workers, and their patients from harm caused by the culture of fear.


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