Working in healthcare is rewarding, meaningful and filled with opportunities to change peoples’ lives. It can also be stressful and highly emotional. 

Burnout, staffing shortages and frustrations with systems and processes can unfortunately create an environment where workplace bullying thrives. Under the extreme pressures that are sometimes present in healthcare, even the most empathetic and compassionate people can start exhibiting bullying behaviours—sometimes without even realizing it.

Read on for more information on workplace bullying in healthcare and what healthcare leaders can do to stop it from happening within their teams.

How common is workplace bullying in healthcare?

According to an analysis of various American studies by Bravado Health, a staggering 85% of nurses have been verbally abused by another nurse. And when it comes to physicians, a BMJ study reported that 42% of American medical students experienced harassment and 84% experienced belittlement during medical school.

To put that in the Canadian context, Statistics Canada reported in 2016 that workplace harassment is more common in health-related occupations than in other fields of work. The report stated that healthcare workers had a 23% probability of reporting that they had been harassed in the workplace, compared to workers in other industries, whose probability for reporting sat below 10%.

What does workplace bullying look like in healthcare?

While bullying can present itself in similar ways across all workplaces, there are a few unique factors present in a healthcare setting that affect the forms bullying can take.

The Canadian Nurses Association (CNA) and the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions (CFNU) acknowledge that bullying can be overt, such as in physical, verbal, financial and sexual behaviours; or covert, such as in neglect, rudeness, humiliation in front of others and withholding information critical to one’s job.

If members of your team, or fellow healthcare leaders in your workplace, are exhibiting any of these behaviours towards colleagues and coworkers, it is important to acknowledge and address the situation as bullying. It can be easy to pass off incidents as stress-induced or even to place blame onto the person at the receiving end. And while everyone has bad days and may say or do things that unintentionally cause harm to someone else, a pattern of harmful behaviour directed at an individual is unacceptable.

How healthcare leaders can discourage bullying in the workplace

Be aware of any tendency you may have to encourage a team member to “just avoid” situations that are likely to set off the aggressor.

Sometimes, in the midst of the many pressures and priorities you’re juggling, it may seem easier to wait for the situation to resolve itself. However, this strategy can leave your team feeling defeated and hopeless, and may result in high turnover.

According to the Workplace Violence and Bullying Joint Position Statement published by the  CNA and the CFNU, 60% of newly graduated registered nurses will leave their first positions within six months and 50% of that number will actually quit the nursing profession due to poor treatment from their colleagues and coworkers.

As a healthcare leader, there are lots of proactive and reactive measures you can take to discourage bullying in your workplace and build a culture where your team feels safe and valued.

  • If your team is not currently experiencing bullying, make sure everyone is aware of your zero-tolerance policy on bullying, knows what to do if they experience harassment and is aware of the repercussions of being a bully. Model behaviours you want to see—be kind, patient and communicative and encourage self-care and compassion.
  • If you are aware of bullying on your team, address it directly. Make sure the people being bullied know you believe them and want to help them. Find out what protocols are in place within your workplace/union and follow them.
  • If your team is in the aftermath of bullying that has since been resolved, it’s time to rebuild a culture of trust and respect. Check in with those who were affected and make sure they are feeling safe. Let team members know that it’s ok to seek help and to make their emotional wellness a priority.

Need help navigating bullying, harassment and complex workplace dynamics?

Sometimes, having an unbiased third party to consult on the issues you’re facing with your team can make all the difference. Leadership coaching is a great way to access someone experienced in helping professionals in your field navigate challenging situations and conversations.

If you’re interested in talking with one of our healthcare leadership coaches about the challenges you’re facing, book a zero-obligation consultation with us today.


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