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Does the Old Saying ‘Nurses Eat Their Young’ Still Apply?

Surveys say that nurse hazing is still an issue. Here are a few ways to recognize it and prevent workplace bullying.

Nursing is a satisfying career choice, especially for those eager to care for others. This field is not without challenges, though. Long shifts, making sure patients receive the best of care, and comforting distraught family members are just a few tasks nurses face.

But one surprising hurdle among nurses is hazing, bullying and conflict within the workplace. The decades-old expression “nurses eat their young” refers to seasoned nurses bullying or hazing new nurses.

While there’s a long-standing debate about whether bullying is prevalent among nurses, here’s what you need to know to prepare for your own nursing career.

How Prevalent is Hazing among Nurses?

The American Nurses Association (ANA) estimates that between 18 and 31% of nurses have been bullied at work, as reported by the Workplace Bullying Institute. However, these statistics include all types of bullying among nurses. For instance, this might include new nurses bullying older nurses, co-workers treating each other with harmful behavior, or older nurses “eating their young.” The Workplace Bullying Institute states that more studies need to be conducted to determine which positions exhibit the most bullying behaviors within the nursing community.

Some nurses are not as certain that nurse hazing or bullying is a prevalent problem. They hold the belief that the fear often instilled in new nurses becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in the workplace or adds additional worry that often isn’t realistic. However, the Workplace Bullying Institute reports that one study found that 60% of new nurses cited workplace bullying behavior as a reason they quit their first nursing job within six months.

Why Bullying and Hazing Sometimes Happens

Employers and co-workers sometimes “test” new professionals with a series of trials to see if they have what it takes to perform well. For instance, hazing is a common technique used in military, police and fire departments. The idea behind hazing is prepping workers for challenges they’ll face in the field.

While a hazing period may be typical in some fields of work, hazing and bullying situations should be carefully evaluated, as noted by The Sentinel Watch. In nursing, bullying can be especially hazardous.

When new nurses enter a healthcare facility, senior nurses might burden new nurses with too many tasks or difficult patients to push them to perform well. This behavior could be detrimental to the well-being of new nurses, as adding hardships to the stress of a new nursing career can sometimes diminish learning.  The Sentinel Watch states that “when you are unnecessarily hard on someone during the learning phase, they become less competent.” Instead of adding more hardships to the lives of new nurses, older nurses should help facilitate confidence and learning.

Identifying Bullying Behaviors in the Nursing Field

No matter if this idea that nurses “eat their young” is new to you or if you’ve heard it repeatedly, preparing for hardships before you finish nursing school can help you succeed. Knowing before you go can help you respond effectively if you find yourself face bullying during your nursing career.

What’s considered bullying or hazing? In the world of nursing, here are some behaviors to look for, as noted by The Sentinel Watch.

First, nurse bullying often occurs both as covert and overt behaviors. Overt hazers or bullies might criticize behavior, point out faults or purposefully embarrass a colleague in front of others. Typical overt behaviors to watch for include the following:

  • Verbal criticism or name-calling
  • Intimidation
  • Blaming
  • Ethnic jokes or slurs
  • Finding fault
  • Threats
  • Physical violence

When nurses are covert bullies, they may seem very helpful and friendly but act in a hostile manner behind your back. Covert behaviors are a bit harder to spot, but watch for a colleague who:

  • Sabotages or purposely spoils your tasks
  • Withholds information and doesn’t instruct you on complicated tasks
  • Excludes you
  • Gives you unfair assignments, such as extremely difficult patients, or too many patients to care for
  • Undermines you as a person or as a nurse
  • Downplays your accomplishments

How to Prepare and Address Bullying Situations

While all of this information can be overwhelming, bullying within the workplace should not deter you from entering a nursing career, as there are ways to prepare for hazing. The first step: Be aware that bullying can happen, especially to new nurses. Knowing what behaviors are considered bullying will also help you decipher the difference between challenges and harassment.

The next step is to talk to your instructors, as they can help you prepare for your new work environment. Your instructors can offer insight and practical tips that can be applied in the workplace. Finally, you should never be afraid to speak up if you are bullied. Find a supervisor, human resources representative or a hospital administrator who can help you address the situation.

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