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Nurse Keith’s Corner: The Trauma of Healthcare Workplace Violence

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By: Keith Carlson, BSN, RN, NC-BC

It’s no secret that jobs in nursing carry inherent threats to personal safety. From needlesticks and back injuries to infection with dangerous pathogens, the risks are real. However, workplace violence is one factor that goes beyond any acceptable risk that nurses should expect or tolerate — yet, as we so frequently observe, the scourge of workplace violence in healthcare is all too real.

Senseless violence

June Onkundi, a dedicated North Carolina-based psychiatric nurse practitioner was stabbed to death by a patient in October of this year. In that same month, a nurse and social worker at a Dallas hospital were shot and killed by a labor and delivery patient’s partner, who brandished a gun and took the lives of two hard-working staff members who were simply doing what they were trained to do: care for others with professionalism, kindness, and skill.

There are numerous reports of nurses and other staff being on the receiving end of angry threats and intimidation, as well as being punched, kicked, pushed, spat on, and verbally abused by patients and their family members.

Nursing and related work in healthcare is an act of service, and violence has no place for those whose careers and lives are dedicated to helping vulnerable patients in their time of need.

Insult to Injury

The insults and challenges that nurses must endure are legion, whether specifically tied to violence or not. Nurses show up to work each day with an acute awareness that numerous aspects of their work could have a deleterious impact on their well-being.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us all too clearly how scores of healthcare professionals can be taken down by an insidiously devious virus that has wormed its way around the world and wreaked havoc wherever it has reared its ugly head.

And we must ask why nurses have a higher rate of workplace injury than construction workers, for example. Do we not also deserve strict workplace safety protections, whether via OSHA or some other mechanism.

The current pandemic aside, plenty of other pathogens have historically put nurses and their colleagues in danger: HIV, Ebola, tuberculosis, cholera, staphylococcus, MRSA — you name it, and a nurse has probably contracted it at work.

Meanwhile, nurse burnout, compassion fatigue, nurse-on-nurse bullying and incivility, and mass attrition from the profession are rampant, and we must not overlook the existential fatigue that the last few years have brought about within the nursing ranks.

We Must Not Turn Our Backs

Throughout the pandemic, signs declaring that “heroes work here” were thoughtful reminders of healthcare workers’ sacrifices and dedicated labor under duress. However, declarations of appreciation, pats on the back, and free pizza do nothing to mitigate violence, assuage burnout, or otherwise help a nurse get back to feeling their best in a stressful environment.

We cannot and must not turn our backs on nurses, which would essentially negate the praise and gratitude expressed so freely throughout the first few years of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. Nurses’ unprecedented exposure to workplace violence and threats against their safety — and their very lives — have no place in our healthcare ecosystem, and no stone should be left unturned in the pursuit of real solutions.

As the very mitochondria of the healthcare system, nurses deserve better. Are we ready to do what it takes to protect them and their multidisciplinary colleagues? Shame on us if we fail to do so.


Keith Carlson, BSN, RN, NC-BC is a holistic career coach for nurses, award-winning nurse blogger, writer, podcaster, speaker, and author.

With two decades of nursing experience, Keith understands the issues faced by 21st-century nurses. Keith’s podcast, The Nurse Keith Show, offers inspiration and practical support to nurses seeking to create meaningful lives and careers.

Keith’s message of savvy career management reaches nurses worldwide and he can be found on social media, as well as at NurseKeith.com.

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