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Nurse Relationships
Afraid at Work
Nurses must confront workplace abuse.

The new nurse was doing the best she could. But it wasn’t fast enough for the emergency room doctor. As the doctor struggled to triage the patient, he became more and more agitated. Finally, he yelled and threw a bloody sponge at the nurse—right in the middle of a procedure.

When physical and verbal abuse takes place in the workplace, immediate action should be taken. But in some health care workplaces—where everyone should feel safe—it’s often not confronted. In this exclusive RealityRN interview, Suzanne Gordon, author of Nursing Against the Odds, says the status quo is not acceptable. Nurses should take practical steps to deal with abuse from doctors and other nurses.

RealityRN:  What advice would you give nurses who are physically abused at work?

Suzanne Gordon: If you’re ever hit or kicked by the doctor, go to the police! That’s an assault. I’ve heard stories involving thrown bloody sponges—those are also forms of assault. With AIDS and other diseases, this is not a joke. It’s illegal. Take it to HR, and if they say, “Boys will be boys” or “Do you want to wreck his career? It was only a little thing,” you tell them you’re going to the police.

But what about the repercussions?

If you’re worried about creating animosity, think about the fact that this person is going to hit somebody else or hit you again. He or she should not be dealing with patients. He or she doesn’t have the professional self-discipline to deal with the stress of patient care work, and should not be in the profession.

Companies would never tolerate this kind of behavior. If a captain of an airplane hit a flight attendant or talked abusively to him or her, the pilot would be fired.

So how are nurses complicit with physical and verbal abuse?

Nurses allow it to happen by acquiescing and not confronting it.

What about verbal abuse?

You can’t take verbal abuse to the police, but it requires the same type of action. Go to HR. The abuser should be made to take anger management classes and given a chance to reform. If it’s not possible, then he or she should be removed from a professional setting.

Nurses can also be abusive—to doctors and to each other. The new nurse should be prepared to deal with this as well. Older more experienced nurses shouldn’t expect people to know things they haven’t learned yet, and then get down on them for not knowing. The new nurse has to be comfortable saying, “I need your help. If I don’t get your help, I’m going to make a major mistake.”

Any advice for administration’s typical response?

You should be prepared for people to dismiss your charges. Someone may ask, “Do you want to ruin his career over this?” You should reply, “I don’t want to ruin his career—but I will not let this person ruin mine.”

Institutions do not like to deal with their problems; people who work within them need to force the issue. Expect resistance, but follow through. Create models and support each other. Nurse managers should support their nurses—strategize with them, help them deal with the doctor, and teach new kinds of behavior.

Suzanne Gordon is an award-winning journalist and author. She’s the author of five books including her newest book on the nursing crisis, Nursing Against the Odds: How Health Care Cost Cutting, Media Stereotypes, and Medical Hubris Undermine Nurses and Patient Care.

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4 Responses to “Afraid at Work”

  1. A. Morton-Miller Says:

    New nurses (and “old” nurses, too!) need support in dealing with these very difficult situations. Often, just knowing where to go for help makes the trouble seem less overwhelming. In my experience, institutions are perhaps getting a bit better at dealing with these types of problems, but nurses need to have support in accessing the help that’s out there. Thanks for the pertinent and useful advice.

  2. Colleen Wise, RN, MA Says:

    Abuse is abuse regardless of the setting and I can not agree more with Suzanne Gordon’s assessment that it should not be tolerated. But, I do not agree that “institutions do not like to deal with their problems”. Professional nurses must hold themselves and those who work with them to a high standard of excellence. You can stand up for yourself regardless of the setting. Many times small abuses are never communicated to management. Staff hears oh that’s just Dr. Blah blah and nothing is done. I advise staff to keep logs or journals of occurances to show a pattern of repeated abuses, no matter how small..habitual inappropriate behavior does not get better on it’s own. The nurse manager should stand up to the “bully MD” and inform that this behavior will not be tolerated EVER. This in turn empowers the staff nurse to do the same, always professionally, building a culture of trust and accountability.

  3. jana Says:

    Colleen raises a good point. I love her line “you can stand up for yourself regardless of the setting”. I’m wondering how some of you have done that in the past. Did it help the situation or make it worse?

  4. KaseyW Says:

    You know, some of “putting up with abuse” is taught. While most of my nursing instructors in school told us to step away and not tolerate abusive behavior by others (doctors, patients, nurses, family members) one of our instructors was firm in believing you had to “toughen up” and just take it. My mom being a nurse herself, refused to allow doctors to be verbally abusive to her nurses. More than once I heard her ask a doctor, ever so sweetly, to step in her office when he was done. The sweeter her voice, the more I knew that doctor was in for it!! On every occassion, a very contrite doctor came out and publicly apolgize to the nurse he had berated in public.

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