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Bullying in the workplace - what nurses can do about it


Nursing Times’ resident Happy Nurse Claire Westwood on coping with bullying in the workplace

Bullying and negative behaviour – 9 coping strategies


An article from last week’s Nursing Times has highlighted the issue of ‘bullying’ in nursing as well as other negative behaviours that affect nurses in different ways. I have coached many nurses who have had their confidence affected by the negative behaviours of others. This can affect the long-term careers of some nurses as they feel the only way to deal with their emotions is to leave the unit or even the profession entirely.

How to deal with these issues:

1. Firstly we have to accept the basic principle of personal development – everyone is responsible for what they do. If someone is behaving in a manner which is destructive to the team or hurtful to others, they must take responsibility for the effect it has.

2. Most of our behaviours are unconscious – that is, we are not always aware of them or how they impact others. I am sure we have all worked with people who have been ‘rude’ or ‘abrupt’ and felt what that was like. I also know that we have all acted in less-than-helpful ways at times too. Start by noting your own behaviour and the effect it has on others when you react to others, are abrupt or don’t respond to others.

3. Dr Phil says ‘we teach others how to treat us’ so if others talk to us or behave in ways we don’t like, and we do nothing about it, then we are not helping them to change or to see how their behaviour is affecting us.

4. It is the behaviour we want to change – it is not about the person themselves. If we want to make changes, they have to come from us. We can only change ourselves, not others. The simplest way to do this is to tell others when they have upset us. Do this by talking about yourself, and not ‘blaming’ them. For example ‘I would like to you…..’ rather than ‘You always……’

5. Use the ‘compliment sandwich’ to give feedback to others. This is a way to tell others what you would like while giving them positive feedback themselves. Start with telling them what they have done well, then tell them how they could improve (do not criticise – tell them what you want) and then finish by telling them something else they have done well. This is a very effective way to give feedback and negates the need for ‘criticism’ which no-one ever likes to get.

6. If others constantly treat you in a way that upsets you, realise that it is you who is allowing yourself to get upset. They are often projecting their own fears and anger onto you – it is not about you personally. Learning ways to distance yourself from the effects can be a useful tool. You can ‘detach’ yourself and use it as a way to protect yourself form getting dragged into an argument.

7. Another way to protect yourself from getting into an argument is to simply not respond. People who are angry are often looking for someone to be their fall guy and if you keep calm you take away the ammunition they need to start a row or argument. This can work incredibly well, or simply state that you would like to be spoken to in a civil way in the future.

8. In its simplest form – treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself. If all staff were kinder to each other and genuinely treated each other with respect (whether you ‘like’ the other person or not) the NHS would be transformed. It is up to everyone to start to communicate in positive, respectful ways to everyone else.

9. If you need more help, find support from your professional body or mentor, have some coaching or learn some advanced communication or NLP skills.

Claire is a qualified nurse and life coach and the founder of She is author of the book ‘The happynurses Guide to Creating a Balanced life’ - available from Amazon, or click here to win a copy from Nursing Times


Readers' comments (43)

  • I believe that there is always a reason why peole behave the way they do. we may not always understand why this is so but we need to acknowledge it to enable us to move on and to deal with it. some people use their problems as an excuse for their rude bullying behaviour. we all have issues at home that may affect our work but it is best to try and leave them at home. we are all human first and foremost and a nurse second. we must ensure we treat each other as so. Being bullied as we know comes in various forms and being civil costs nothing and that includes a smile. Having your self-confidence undermined and nibbled away at is not nice. I have experienced such behaviour by a newly qualified nurse who shows me no respect whatsoever and who appears threatened by a new role I am training towards. It is not fault that I have been given an opportunity to better myself and gain new skills and knowledge that will greatly benefit my patients and colleagues I work with. The NHS is changing and we are all part of this change whether we like it or not. I abhor confrontation greatly and found myself having to change my normal behaviour to that of a confrontational one due to this collegues behaviour and incivility towards me. I shouldnt need to remind a qualified nurse to treat me with some respect and not to treat me like somthing she has just walked in. I shouldnt need to remind a qualified nurse that I am a human being first and foremost and should be treated as one. what training has she been through to make her behave in the way she has?
    Management are aware of her behaviour and have spoken to her in the past about the way she has treated other members of staff. They say she has trouble controlling her temper. I'm not sure I would want to be looked after by a nurse with a problem with her temper would you?
    I dont feel good about the fact I had to stand up to her and the fact we have ignored each other in work is not good. I realise that intervention needs to be sought from management to put this problem right.
    I hope when we all meet up to sort the problem out we do so with respect and co-operation from all concerned, as there is nothing worse than feeling useless and worthless, from someone elses unkind behaviour.

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  • The trouble is that most bullys fall down at point 1. They will never accept that they are doing wrong and organisations do not want to deal with anything negative anymore so they allow bullys to continue and grow as such...The NHS in itself is becoming the bully. A caring organisation full of people who do not care at every level above the clinical level?

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  • Thia ia a very "reasonable" way of treating bullying in the work place. Unfortunately, Bullies are not reasonable people; if they are in positions of authority and flout employment law you will find yourself in the position I did with a manager telling me "To shut the F*** up!"
    The first thing you do is keep a log, names dates etc - then you go through proceedure and use HR dept. YOU FOLLOW POLICY & PROCEEDUREs that are there to protect you.

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  • I experienced bullying behaviour several years ago when I started my first CPN post. It was an profoundly unpleasant experience and not just because of the experience of being bullied. I took prompt action when I realised what was happening to me ie noting incidents, dates, times etc and went down the route of making an official complaint. I have to say that I would advise anyone taking the official route to "count the cost" as the process of investigating my complaint lasted over a year and was a horrendous experience.

    It had an awful impact on my health, my personal life and almost destroyed my career and, even though the complaint was upheld, I felt no sense of justice or satisfaction at this outcome. During the investigation I was moved to another centre (where I was marginalised and treated with suspicion) and honestly felt as if it was me who was under investigation!!! I was accused of being "too touchy" or told that "it's all about perceptions" or (my personal favourite) being compared to " a faulty clock, right twice a day but still faulty". .The last one was the person allegedly representing me. Sheer tenacity and bloody mindedness got me through this and I was very fortunate to be (finally) redeployed to another Team where my career has flourished and I am very happy.

    As a result of my experience, I do not accept ANY inappropriate behaviour from anyone and will immediately challenge bullying or inappropriate behaviour in an assertive and professional manner. I have found this way to be successful and would urge others who find themselves in the situation I was in to do likewise. The only way to deal with a bully is to stand up to them. I know this is very simplistic but it's also very true.

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  • I have recently been off work suffering from streess due to five months of continuous bullying in the work place by a senior nurse. I am told many people have left the trust because of this particular person. I started keeping a diary and have got detailled record of every incident that has happened. I even have patients as witnesses to some of the events. I reported it to my line manager and copied HR. This I think was a big mistake as nothing positive came out of the meeting. It was at the meeting that my little mistakes that I was not aware of were highlighted. People working in the setting complain about this nurse but none wanted to give evidence at the meeting that was held. I feel let down by my line manager. I am back at work now but still do not feel I am coping well working in the setting. I am currently looking for a new job and will leave as soon as I find one. If I did not love the job I do, I am sure I would have left nursing for good because of this experience.

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  • I find the above guidelines very helpful as I am going through a lot of stress as a result of bullying in the work place and did not know how to handle it.

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  • I am currently in a situation such as the ones described above. It makes me so sad to think that so may of us are going through such upsetting stressful experiences.

    The advise given is good; but so hard to utilise when the bully is your manager, in an organisation where she is loved! I personally find my clinical supervisor indispensable. My advise is to find a superivor you trust to help you relect on the situation, and advise you on the strategies you can use to manage and cope with the bully.

    Above all don't forget to look after yourself first and foremost, good luck!

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  • I stood up to the bullies as well as reported poor care standards and got the sack after 2.5 years of investigatory and disciplinary meetings. I had a previous unblemished record of 14 years in the nursing profession. The simple fact is that you can't stand up to the bullies in the NHS. They are a law unto themselves and will continue to get away with treating staff badly, because the staff generally will not take things further. I have been to hell and back for the past three and a half years defending myself and now finally I am hoping to see justice done at a tribunal. Whilst not all managers are like this, it has to be noted that there are corrupt managers and personnel staff that don't do the NHS purse strings any good at all. They believe they are invincible and will continue to get away with bullying because they hold your job and your wage and can take it away from you whenever they feel like it.

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  • Unfortunately bullying and harassment in nursing must have a knock on effect on the profession as a whole and runs the risk of putting it in to disrepute with the. public and other professionals.
    It really needs intelligent leadership, zero tolerance and good professional and mature discipline to effectively eradicate this kind of dysfunctional behaviour in the workplace. Bullies are a risk to themselves their colleagues and most importantly of all the patients and the organiasation that supports them.

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  • I followed the Trust Policy & Procedure when I was targeted by the resident bully in 2005. HR and senior management are supporting the bully and using delaying tactics in an effort to wear me down. They have distorted facts and lied all the way through so far. To make matters worse my UNISON rep was colluding with them (probably concerned about his own post, as he is employed by the same Trust). I now have a new rep.
    The final stage of my complaint is due to be heard shortly and I know that it will not be upheld. The senior manager hearing it will simply rubber stamp the findings of her previous two corrupt colleagues.
    So, following the correct procedure will not eradicate bullying when policies are not implemented in an honest way.
    Corrupt managers will not admit that bullying exists in their patch, particularly when they are bullies themselves. So the response is to intimidate anyone who has the courage to report malpractice.
    Sadly,this does not help the bully,the target of the bully or the patients that they are all meant to be caring for.
    But then it is of course very difficult for corrupt managers to recognize malpractice when future promotion and fatter pensions depend on not recognizing it!!!.
    That's what it's all about.

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