Safety: Speak Up to Stop Bullying

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The destructive behavior impacts the well-being of your patients and staff.


I was raised to do the right thing and to stand up for the underdog. My dad, who was a middle school math teacher and basketball coach, advocated for the voiceless before it was trendy. My mother told me about a time when one of his students wanted to wear her hijab during a game, but the opposing team told her she had to take it off. My dad immediately told the team, “Pack up, we’re leaving.” He wouldn’t stand for the inherent racism and because of his actions, the athletic director for the opposing team changed his mind and told my father she could wear her hijab during the game after all.

Despite growing up with two incredible role models, I wasn’t prepared for my first workplace bullying experience. I was 30 years old, brand new to the OR and excited to begin my career as a surgical nurse, but the excitement was short-lived when my colleagues began to bully me. Everything I did was scrutinized as the other nurses and techs picked on me for being the new girl. I put up with constant eye rolls, gossip and sabotage. After a while, the stressful environment caused my hair to start falling out. Other nurses who were experiencing the same treatment had to go on anti-depressants to treat their anxiety. After eight grueling months, I quit to become a travel nurse.

As stressful as my experience was, I am glad it happened because now I advocate against bullying. So many people are bullied at work that they think it is just how they deserve to be treated and how they should treat their colleagues. But I remind my colleagues that they should always think about the patient first and how their behavior could negatively impact the quality of the care they provide.

Toxic consequences

Bullying is defined as “repeated and deliberate physical, verbal or written conduct intended to intimidate, degrade or humiliate any individual or group.” Some of the most common forms of bullying include being singled out, gossiping and backstabbing, sabotage, isolation and patronizing non-verbal behavior such as eye rolling. Bullying is often thought to occur most frequently between leaders in power and staff members, but peer-to-peer bullying is more common. Surgeons are being trained on ways to recognize and stop bullying behavior and are now ahead of the game, so I have many surgical leaders and administrators reaching out to me asking if their nurses can receive similar training and education.

Bullying impacts safe patient care in numerous ways. If your preceptor or colleague rolls their eyes at you every time you ask a question, are you going to continue to ask questions? No, because you are tired of being made to feel stupid or inadequate. So instead of asking the available resources for help, you end up guessing, which can be extremely harmful to the patient’s overall outcome. Plus, if a patient is ever a firsthand witness to bullying, their impression of your staff and level of care is probably not a positive one.

Sabotage is another form of bullying that can affect patient safety. Have you ever had an instructor purposely exclude an important part in a procedure only to call you out in front of the surgeon for missing the step? Not only can this behavior ruin a provider’s reputation, but the negative impact it can have on the patient’s care is huge. Why are we wasting the energy on putting down our coworkers and making them look bad, when we should be building each other up and making sure our patients are receiving the best possible care?

Sadly, hazing has long been a part of the culture in health care. When you are new to the profession, some nurses who have been on staff for years decide to pick you apart and then isolate you. And when you are new, you often don’t speak up because you don’t want to be retaliated against.

Higher purpose

COACHING IDOL Philip Dyer stood up for one of his players when she was attacked for being different.

Working in an OR is stressful enough and adding the pandemic to the mix has everyone on edge. But we can’t keep using the pandemic as an excuse to treat our coworkers poorly. In fact, we should be making every effort to do the exact opposite. Putting people down and having negative things to say about each other is exhausting — and inexcusable. Pointing out the best in people generates positive vibes that make them feel good about themselves. Complimenting others will make you feel good, too.

We have no idea what our colleagues are dealing with in their private lives and working in a hostile environment can make someone feel sad and overwhelmed. We all deserve to be treated with respect. At the end of the day, we chose careers in surgery to help people and deliver excellent patient care. I will never stop educating providers on the prevalence of bullying in health care and the need to hold bullies accountable for their actions because if bullies exist in the OR, the health and safety of our patients are in jeopardy. OSM

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