Nancy J. Brent, MS, JD, RN
Rarely a day goes by that I don’t receive a question or call about a nurse being the victim of verbal abuse, bullying, or intimidation, or even being physically threatened. What is happening to the nursing profession?
Is it because working conditions, in whatever setting, are to blame? Is it because short-staffing, too long hours, too many acutely ill patients, and other realities in the workplace make a nurse angry, frustrated, overly tired, and lacking patience with staff and patients? Is it because the profession has now become a way to earn a salary, albeit not commensurate with the work and education required, rather than a way of helping and caring for others? Is it because the profession is no longer a “generic” one (composed only of those who chose nursing as a first and only profession) but rather one that includes others who decided to go into nursing because their initial profession did not have a job for them?
I thought back on my years as a nursing student and as a practicing nurse. Was I ever bullied, intimidated, harassed, or physically threatened during those years? As clear as a bell, I remembered my experience in my team-leading course during my senior year of my nursing education program. The faculty member who taught the course was bright, expected much from her students, and was known to be intimidating.
When it became my turn to be the team leader for a day, I remember being scared and hoped that the assignments I would make for my team members (fellow nursing students) would be the right ones in my instructor’s eyes. I must say that being a little obsessive-compulsive (I’m better now, honest!) didn’t help me make the assignments with ease. So, when I had not met the time frame deadline within which those assignments were to be completed, I was in trouble.
The faculty member, discovering I had not yet done the assignments, bent over me at the conference room desk at the clinical facility where I was sitting, yelled at me, assured me if I did not make the assignments soon I would not receive a passing grade for the course, and left the room in a huff, with an imposed time frame within which she would return, informing me: “Those assignments better be done!”
I remember wanting to cry and leave the clinical site. Fortunately I didn’t, and I was able to get the assignments done within the time crunch I had to complete the task. And, my decisions were accepted without further intimidation. Whew!
But, this was not the way to help a struggling—yes, also obsessive-compulsive—student complete the assignment and learn from it. I’m sorry to say I kept silent about it and just forgot about it. I passed the course with flying colors.
I also remember being bullied by a physician when I questioned an order he wrote for a patient to whom I was assigned during my medical-surgical rotation. I can’t remember if this incident was before or after my scare with my faculty member, but another instructor was quite supportive when I told her what I had discovered. I told her I couldn’t give the medication. She calmly told me, ”You know what to do. Let me know how it goes.
So, I marched down to the urology clinic, asked to speak to the physician. In the waiting room of the clinic, I quietly but firmly told him of my concerns. He was quite a bit taller than I was, and was a physician, so who was I (I was thinking to myself) delivering this message to him that I was sure he would not take kindly to?
He didn’t take the message kindly, yelled at me, and demanded I administer the medication in question. I responded I would not (in a calm voice), told him if he wanted the patient to have the medication, he should administer it himself, and turned and walked out of the clinic (trembling, by the way).
It turns out the doctor did not administer the medication, the patient was saved from a real risk to his life, and my instructor was quite pleased with me and the outcome.
So, I guess threatening workplaces and nursing education programs were around way back then, too. And my experiences were probably not as awful as my nursing student colleagues and nurse colleagues have weathered over the years.
But the question still remains: Why can’t we all just get along?* Certainly, society’s pressures and the demands on nurses and faculty are greater than ever before, certainly greater than they were (perhaps) back in 19____. But, if the nursing profession can’t stay above the fray of today’s world, where is it headed?
Nurses need to think carefully about how they interact with each other and with patients. Think before speaking. Be tolerant, patient, and fair. Speak and conduct yourself with grace and concern. Work together because there is strength in numbers. And, report those colleagues and faculty who intimidate, bully, threaten, or harass others. Silence is NOT golden.
There is an old Cree proverb: “Only two relationships are possible—to be a friend or to be an enemy.” Which description characterizes your relationships with your fellow nurses and nursing students?
*Based on a statement by the late Rodney King, 1991.