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Research indicates that bullying is common in the nursing workplace

There’s an old saying that goes, “nurses eat their young,” which describes the problem of workplace bullying Sheila Blackfield is trying to solve.

“When I first heard that in nursing school I thought, ‘How ironic, here we are in a profession that’s supposed to extend caring and compassion, but we don’t always to that to each other as colleagues,’” the University of Alberta graduate student said.

Bullying in the workplace is especially widespread in the field of nursing. Even an online search of the colloquial phrase “catty nurses” retrieves hundreds of anecdotes of nurses receiving unfair and sometimes cruel treatment from their coworkers and supervisors.

Blackfield herself first came across workplace bullying when she was in nursing school 30 years ago. Since then, she has experienced and witnessed it in numerous workplaces. With each occurrence, Blackfield thought the problem would get better over time. But 10 years into her career, Blackwood still witnesses those hostile dynamics.

Bullying in nursing is actually an international problem, Blackfield said. The logic behind widespread bullying is that flawed work processes induce higher levels of stress and frustration for nurses, which prompts aggressive behaviour. Additional stress comes from cutbacks, healthcare funding problems and staff shortages.

“Workplace bullying is a symptom of a work environment that nurses are working in,” Blackfield said. “It’s not the nurses’ personalities.”

Blackfield’s own research looked at what aspects make “cattiness” more prominent in the nursing workplace, and what organizational factors make them more likely to leave their jobs. She found that cliques in nursing workplaces — informal negative workplace alliances — and misuse of organizational processes were both conducive to bullying. These conflicts can look like a group isolating individual workers, verbal abuse and subtle negative comments.

Bullying often happens to student nurses placed on the ward by those who are more experienced. Though they’re new to the social hierarchy in their practicum placements, the best thing for bullied students on their practicums is to be aware of who they can report their experiences to, such as instructors and supervisors, Blackfield said.

Currently, measures to aid the problem of Canadian nurse bullying wait until it occurs, and policies depend on victims to report them. For that reason, a lot of cases go unreported. When they are filed, cases of bullying are often labelled as problems with respect or fairness in the workplace, Blackfield said.

“In that way, it’s almost like (policymakers) are trying to soften it,” she said.

Workplace bullying is getting better as more people are willing to talk about it, but it still has room for improvement. The solution is going to come from learning how to deal with stress differently and to put that responsibility on the healthcare providers, like having better preventative measures, Blackfield said.

Blackfield’s next step in research is to see whether her findings from her studies of general Canadian nurses extend to the population of nurses working in Indigenous communities. As a more general goal, she hopes her research will improve the general workplace in Canada.

“I would like to see Canadian hospitals become the leaders in having the best workplace environment in where nurses are wanting to work and are drawn to it,” Blackfield said.

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