Why Do Nurses Eat Their Young?
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What Do Nurses Eat?
Well, the old adage is that “nurses eat their young.” Not literally of course; I’m not talking about a nurse cannibalizing their biological children. I’m talking about the abuse a new nurse sometimes faces when he or she enters the workplace. It’s a surprising hurdle that a lot of nurses must deal with: bullying, hazing, and conflict in the workplace. The types of bullying can manifest in different types of forms, such as unwillingness to help a coworker, verbal abuse, mocking, gossip, exclusion, and, in extreme cases, even physical abuse.
I find it so unusual that even though nursing is a profession that is committed to helping, caring, healing, and loving others, it’s also very consistent with such bullying tactics like hazing. Nursing is regarded as one of the most trusted professions; however, in this career we are subjected to high pressure, stress, and extreme emotions, which could lead to a boiling point that may precipitate aggression towards each other.
Does that still stand as true today as when I started out? Unfortunately, I believe it does, and I see it happen often in my own career. It often happens when new nurses are insecure and unable to defend themselves. Suddenly, they find themselves in this new, big, scary world and in a new role straight out of nursing school.
Believe me, we all know that nursing school is no joke, and some nursing school instructors can be vicious. I wonder if such experiences make new nurses accustomed to this treatment as a result of nursing school and clinicals. Is it possible that being bullied, humiliated, and harassed is familiar and it just carries on into the workplace with them? Is this a rite of passage, akin to hazing in sororities and fraternities?
The bigger questions are why it is necessary and when does this end? Does it end when a person has been a nurse a certain number of years? Does it start over and over when a person goes into a new job, regardless of how many years s/he has actually been a nurse?
I witnessed one of the first instances of bullying of nurses while attending nursing school. There was in our class one student who was particularly bright, beautiful, and organized (let’s just say she was perfect). Honestly, she rather intimidated the rest of us and would consistently stand to speak anytime she had a question or to answer a question. She was the kind of girl that we all detest: her always perfect notes were pristine, she always made A’s. When it was her turn to speak, she would stand, poised as Princess Diana, and in the most articulate voice you can imagine, would answer or ask a question.
One day after a very grueling test, we were all literally in tears because we were sure that we had failed it. Suddenly, this young lady stood up to ask a question. That’s when it happened: another student blurted out to her, “would you please just sit your ass down?!”
The entire room burst into laughter. Even the instructor laughed out loud and openly. Very slowly she sat down. I saw tears run down her face. That was the very first instance that I can recall that I witnessed nurse bullying and this poor girl wasn’t even officially a nurse yet. It was so blatant that I was actually shocked. The instructor did nothing, giving absolutely no reprimand to the student who blurted out. Through the instructor’s silence, the bullying student’s behavior was condoned and somewhat rewarded. For the remainder of the term, the bullying student was regarded as the leader of the class.
I often wonder about that young lady today. I wonder what her nursing career has been like since we graduated. I wonder: does she still display her intelligence boldly? Does she still stand while being extremely poised in all her interactions with people, or did she shrink and become quiet and reserved? I think and wonder about her frequently, and I feel very sad that on that day when everybody burst into laughter, I joined in the chorus. I succumbed to the peer pressure to laugh and ridicule a fellow future nurse who was just trying to make her way, just as I was.
For years, this culture of bullying has been widely tolerated among nurses; however, there has been increased public attention brought to this problem. As a nurse leader, I am very watchful of bullying behavior by senior nurses towards new staff, making it clear to them that it is not accepted as part of the culture of our workplace. I think about the new employees and especially the nurses that come under my leadership and strive to cultivate a new adage: “nurses protect and treasure their young.”
My name is Freda Beaty. I’m originally from Winston-Salem, NC, but currently live in Greenville, SC. I am a Registered Nurse and I am the Administrator for a hospice company. During my free time, I am a jewelry designer and self-proclaimed photographer. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.