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Nurse Manager Bullying and What to Do About It

As a nurse manager, you are responsible for creating a professional workplace for you and your staff. In addition to supervising your employees, you need to make sure that they are keeping a professional demeanor during their time on the job.

Nurse bullying can be a major problem in the workplace, but nurses can get bombarded with insensitive remarks from their managers as well as their colleagues. Being bullied by a manager or supervisor isn’t the same as bullied by a colleague. The manager or supervisor holds power over their subordinate, which can make the experience of being bullied all the more painful. Learn more about nurse manager bullying, what to do if you’re being bullied and how to prevent it from happening again.

How to Differentiate Between Bullying and Work-Related Stress

Before we dive into the problem of nurse manager bullying, let’s take a moment to define what we mean by the word “bullying”. To be fair, nursing isn’t an easy job and both nurse managers and their employees will be prone to work-related stress. A busy day at the hospital or doctor’s office might lead to someone being in a bad mood or one nurse yelling at another. While this kind of behavior isn’t exactly professional, it might not qualify as bullying or workplace harassment, but rather a response to stress. Long hours, back-to-back shifts, budget cuts and an overall nursing shortage can all contribute to workplace stress.

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, workplace bullying is defined as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators.” Abusive conduct can be:

  • Threatening, humiliating, or intimidating in nature
  • Work interference — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done
  • Verbal abuse

If a nurse feels as if they are being “targeted” by one of their own or a manager because the other person simply doesn’t like them or sees them as a threat, this could be defined as workplace harassment. The person may be verbally abused in and out of stressful situations, which suggests the harassment isn’t a symptom of workplace stress.

Nurse Manager Bullying: Not Just Among Nurses

Studies show bullying isn’t just a problem among nurses. A recent study by the RNnetwork shows widespread harassment and bullying among nurses and nurse managers alike. The results show:

  • 45 percent of nurses have been verbally harassed or bullied by other nurses
  • 41 percent have been verbally harassed or bullied by managers or administrators
  • 38 percent have been verbally harassed or bullied by physicians

According to the numbers, nurses are almost as likely to be bullied by their manager or a physician than one of their colleagues. Nurse managers and physicians have more authority in the workplace compared to their subordinates, and some wield their power over others in destructive ways. In turn, nurses may feel hesitant to report workplace harassment if it means pointing the finger at their supervisor, manager or employer for fear of losing their job. These numbers might not tell the entire story. Responding to, reporting, and documenting nurse manager bullying can be challenging if nurses don’t feel comfortable coming forward.

The Effects of Workplace Bullying

Bullying isn’t just an inconvenience. It can undermine an employee’s work ethic, stymie communication, and lead to more job turnover.

According to studies, workplace bullying can lead to a range of mental and psychological consequences, including insomnia or a lack of sleep, depression, fatigue, adjustment disorders, anxiety, and even work-related suicide. These effects can last up to two years after the incident, especially if they take place on a regular basis.

Bullying can even lead to physical consequences, such as neck pain, musculoskeletal complaints, acute pain, fibromyalgia, and cardiovascular disease. These physical ailments can impair a nurse’s ability to do their job.

Finally, bullying can even lead to socioeconomic concerns, such as a rise in sick days and long-term absences from work, higher rates of unemployment either through job loss or voluntary leave. According to the same RNnetwork study, of those who reported being harassed at work, 52 percent indicated they were considering leaving nursing. Of those who reported no harassment, only 32 percent considered leaving nursing.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a shortage of 1.05 million registered nurses by 2022. With a nationwide nursing shortage in effect, many healthcare facilities simply can’t afford to lose talented nurses due to bullying. According to the 2016 National Healthcare Retention & RN Staffing Report, nurse turnover can cost anywhere from $37,700 to $58,400, and hospitals can lose between $5.2 million to $8.1 million annually. Across all industries, abusive supervision affects an estimated 13.5% of U.S. workers and costs U.S. corporations an estimated $23.8 billion annually.

Possible Causes of Nurse Manager Bullying

Nurse managers may bully their staff members for a variety of reasons. As we mentioned earlier, nursing is a demanding job that comes with a fair amount of stress and fatigue. But nurse managers may have their own reasons for acting out.

Budget cuts, organization inefficiency, downsizing, and high turnover can be a cause of nurse manager bullying. While these factors by no means excuse this kind of behavior, it’s important to remember that many nurse mangers are dealing with factors beyond their control.

Nurse managers that bully their staff members might also be subject to abuse from their managers, continuing the cycle of abuse. If a healthcare facility has a history of ignoring or even rewarding workplace abuse, nurse mangers will be more likely to abuse their staff members.

Giving nurse managers too much freedom can also lead to workplace abusive. Having more oversight of managers can reduce workplace abuse and bullying.

What to Do If You’re Being Bullied by Your Nurse Manager

If you feel that you have been bullied by your nurse manager or supervisor, there are several courses of action you can take to address the situation and prevent it from happening in the future.

Address Your Manager or Supervisor Directly

In some situations, the best remedy may be to confront the person directly when you feel you’ve been mistreated in the workplace. Remember the definition of workplace harassment, so make sure the incident isn’t stress-related. This person should have a history of signaling you out for abuse and their words should intend to cause harm rather than correcting you for a mistake. You should find a time to confront the person when you both have a moment to talk. If patients are rushing through the door and the facility is short-staffed, you might need to wait until you both have more time on your hands. Take a deep breath and mentally prepare yourself for what could be an awkward, difficult conversation. Clearly state how this abuse is having a negative effect on your life and job performance and be prepared to cite several examples to backup your argument.

If you prefer to avoid conflict, remember that some facilities may require you to confront this person directly before reporting the abuse to an administrator, so you may not have a choice in the matter.

Familiarize Yourself with the Facility’s Harassment Policy

If you’d rather avoid confronting this person directly or they dismiss your concerns, you should make an effort to learn about your facility’s policies regarding workplace harassment. Find a clear definition for workplace harassment in the company’s policies and make sure the abuse you’ve experiences from your manager meets this criterion. You should also have a firm understanding of how your facility responds to and disciplines those that violate these policies. What are the next steps? Does the person receive a warning, will they be fired on the spot, or will the facility open an investigation? Every facility is different, so make sure you’re up-to-date on these policies.

Gather Evidence

Now that you have a better idea of what constitutes workplace misconduct and harassment, document these incidents of abuse before reporting your manager to an administrator. You can ask some of your colleagues to be a witness to this abuse. Or, depending on state and workplace laws, you might consider recording this person without their knowledge using your smartphone or another audio recording device. Some states and facilities forbid undercover audio recording, so make sure you know your rights and those of your manager or supervisor. You can also request access to the facility’s surveillance system as proof of the abuse.

Report Your Manager to Their Supervisor

Once you have evidence of this abuse, you can report your supervisor to the correct person at your facility. This may be your manager’s supervisor, such as the Director of Nursing, or someone in the Human Resources department. Present your case to the correct person and let them proceed with next steps. Make sure you know how your facility is supposed to deal with these matters, so, if this person fails to follow up with your complaint, you’re prepared to hold them accountable.

Reach Out to Your Colleagues and Administrators

If your facility fails to bring the perpetrator to justice or simply looks the other way, you can then reach out to your colleagues and see if they’ve experience similar instances of abuse. There is strength in numbers, so your voice will be louder if you and your colleagues decide to band together. Talk to your colleagues about your collective rights and brainstorm ways to create change in the workplace. With enough evidence and support from your colleagues, facility administrators will have no choice but to remove the perpetrator from their position.

Preventing nurse manger bullying will lead to a healthier, more efficient workplace. With a nationwide nursing shortage, retaining talented employees will be vital to meeting patient demand in the years to come. Facilities can also lower their recruitment costs by ousting managers and supervisors prone to workplace abuse.

As a nurse, you shouldn’t feel as if you need to leave your job due to someone else’s unprofessional behavior. While quitting your position may seem like the easiest solution, you need to stand up for your rights. Research your facility’s harassment policies and confront the situation directly.


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