The Disastrous Effect of Bullying on Nurse Retention

April 1, 2021
April 1, 2021

For years, polls have shown that Americans view nurses as having the highest honesty and ethical standards of all professions—not only among healthcare professions, such as doctors, pharmacists, and dentists—but all major professions. Given this overwhelming admiration for nurses, why don’t more people gravitate toward the calling? Why do we continue to see nurses leaving the profession in growing numbers? One common and surprising reason is bullying, from within the profession and among colleagues.

Bullying: Nurses Do What?

Judith Meissner, now professor emeritus at Bucks County Community College in Pennsylvania, famously wrote in 1986, “Nurses eat their young” (Meissner, 1999). She was specifically referring to experienced nurses’ treatment of new nurses. Studies have found that as many as 60% of new nurses who leave their first position within six months do so in response to some form of verbal abuse or harsh treatment from a colleague.

Surveys say that as many as 85% of nurses have been bullied at work (Colduvell, 2017). The American Nurses Association (ANA) defines bullying as “repeated, unwanted harmful actions intended to humiliate, offend, and cause distress in the recipient” (Colduvell, 2017). Bullying is a subset of the broader group of behaviors referred to as workplace incivility.

The literature reveals that bullying between nurses—also called lateral violence—is often the reason a nurse leaves the job, if not the profession. Why is incivility such a widespread issue in this “most trusted” profession? Cheryl Woelfle and Ruth McCaffrey speculated on why nurses bully other nurses in their 2007 Nursing Forum article, “Nurse on Nurse.”

Misplaced Aggression

“Nurses often lack autonomy, accountability, and control over their profession… this can often result in displaced and self-destructive aggression within the oppressed group,” say Woelfle and McCaffrey (Colduvell, 2017). It would be grossly unfair to characterize all experienced nurses as bullies, but bullying among nurses is undeniable. The costs associated with such incivility can be great, including burnout, turnover, and decreased job satisfaction. In their study in Journal of Nursing Administration, Patricia Lewis Smokler and Ann Malecha estimate the annual cost of workplace incivility to be almost $12,000 per nurse (Smokler and Malecha, 2011).

Bullying is often met with silence. While the profession and the healthcare industry tackle the problem, individual nurses need to be part of the solution. “Nurses must realize that their silence equals complicity in the face of bullying and aberrant behavior; standing up to bullies and advocating for a culture of kindness, civility, and compassion for both patients and staff are in the best interests of everyone,” writes Kathleen Colduvell, RN, BSN, BA, CBC on (Colduvell, 2017).

Challenges with Accountability and Authority

Nurses who step forward to report bullying, however, often feel their concerns are not addressed. A nurse describes her experience: “I was bullied by a veteran nurse who despised the fact I was young and moving up the chain of command. She spent countless hours of overtime stalking my charts, finding any error she could, slandering my reputation to other nurses, and even threatening to take my license. When I complained, I was told to keep my head down and ignore her complaints and threats. This caused me to transfer to another department.”


Colduvell, K. (2017). “Nurse Bullying: Stand Up and Speak Out,” Retrieved from articles/how-to-deal-with-nurse-bullying/ 

Meissner, J. (1999). “Nurses Are We Still Eating Our Young?” Nursing. Retrieved from http://journals.lww. com/nursing/Citation/1999/02000/Nurses_are_we_ still_eating_our_young__.18.aspx

Smokler, L. P. and Malecha, A. (2011). “The impact of workplace incivility on the work environment, manager skill, and productivity,” Journal of Nursing Administration. Retrieved from pubmed/21799351

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