I Know Why Nurses Eat Their Young! Maybe…

I Know Why Nurses Eat Their Young! Maybe…


The following is a Guest Post via Erica MacDonald

After reading The Gypsy Nurse’s post Nurses ‘Eat Their Young?’, I wondered if anyone had a different opinion than me on the cause on this phenomenon.

A nurse “eating their young” is an almost accepted form of bullying by many nurses (the ones that participate). Most don’t admit (even to their self) that they are eating their young, but cleverly try to disguise their bullying actions by positioning their attitude/behavior toward the new nurse as “helping” or “providing an educational opportunity”. People that have worked in other careers agree that they have encountered this phenomenon in other jobs. However, they are shocked at the prevalence that it occurs in nursing.

Indeed, I have personally experienced it and seen it done to others. So the question is “Why would educated and professional nurses engage in such poor behavior?” I believe there are two main reasons this attitude prevails in nursing. The first reason is…. High school never ends! Refer to the subject of Social Psychology. Social Psychology attempts to explain behavior such as cliques, and group think.

Cliques and Group Think are the underpinning of the complicated social culture of high school as well as most workplaces.

So when nurses form a clique that accepts it is the “cultural norm” to eat their young, even those that don’t agree keep quiet in order not to upset the status quo. The irony of it all is that we are consistently voted America’s most trusted profession. Yet, we can not even be trusted to treat each other with kindness and respect. It is really quite sad that this shallow Group Think occurs among such talented and educated people!

So the question remains “What spurs nurses to allow this to become the social norm in their group?” This brings me to my second reason for such an attitude to prevail in nursing. The profession of nursing in our society is synonymous with sacrifice. This sacrifice starts in nursing school and continues into the workplace.

Think back to nursing school. First, nursing program acceptance can be similar to the rush of winning the lottery because it is such a competitive process. Then you realize that your nursing professors are on a mission to “weed” people out and make sure only the strongest students pass their classes. They want to eliminate the “weak links” because nursing is a high stress, academic, and moral science (and the school’s pass rates are public for the entire world to see). As a nursing student you begin to study with intensity, stop socializing, working out, and attending family functions. But it is all good! You rationalize that nursing school doesn’t last forever and it is worth the ….SACRIFICE!

You pass NCLEX, breathe a sigh of relief, and say to your self “I can live again!” Then you begin the long struggle to find a job. But wait! You finally find a job and discover it is in the specialty that you are not interested in and you will have to work nights. Again, you encounter SACRIFICE! But hey, at least I have a job to pay bills (often large student loan bills).

For some nurses, they discover that adjusting to nights is impossible. The longer they stay on nights the more dysfunctional their life and sleep becomes. If you have young children they make comments such as “all you do is sleep”. You and your children are on opposite schedules, so to them it seems like you are sleeping their lives away. Also, you work weekends, odd hours, mandatory overtime, on call, and miss holidays/special events with your family.

Furthermore, some patients and their family can be very difficult and unappreciative even when you are doing the best you can with the poor staffing ratios. Not to mention you’re often dealing with burnout if you are working a high stress critical care area. By the way, you have not eaten, drank water, or went to the restroom during most of the shifts you work. Don’t forget the nurse bullies! The years pass, and you lose track of the numerous sacrifices you have made in the name of nursing.

So, the continuing atmosphere of sacrifice can contribute to the erosion of your empathy and self confidence. Then enters a new nurse when stars in their eyes about the wonderful profession of nursing. You are unhappy with your situation and treat the new kid on the block just like you were treated; badly in the name of “education”. Or maybe you are a competitive type person and want to maintain your status in the group that you have earned in the workplace. Or, unconsciously you perceive a new nurse a potential future threat. So you decide to test the new nurse and see what they are made of. Let’s mold a new nurse into a super nurse of steel!!

I think this is a general scenario of how nurses come to engage in nurse bullying.

Admittedly, there are some work environments that are more accepting of new nurses than others. I realize that my example borders on the dramatic. Or does it? I have informally interviewed a large number of nurses during friendly conversations; the reoccurring theme is usually sacrifice. Sacrifice is the fertile ground that bulling behaviors come to seed in.

The solution that the profession of nursing has decided to combat nurse bullying is similar to the approach we take in preventive care; awareness and education. Nurse bully experts are focusing on the workplace. All over the country hospitals are waking up and requiring education for their staff to prevent nurse bullying in the workplace.

However, since you can not control others actions, only your own, the specialty of nursing education needs to step up to the plate. Nursing schools have just as much responsibility as the workplace. They have a moral obligation to help students to pass the NCLEX and prepare them for workplace success.

Nursing schools should address, in their curriculum, this phenomenon and the tactics that new nurses should employ to fend off the “wolves”. Self confident new nurses that are armed with the knowledge and concrete actions to defend themselves could be a deterrent in itself for bullies. At least they won’t be blindsided when entering the workforce. We need happy nurses that want to stay in the nursing profession to care for patients and to deal with the changes that will occur in healthcare.

What do you think? Is there another explanation for this phenomenon? What is your solution to the problem?

About The Author:

Author: Erica MacDonald is a MSN prepared nurse whose mission is to empower nurses through self employment by providing them with education and motivation. Erica blogs at http://www.selfemployednurse.com and you can connect with her via Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SelfEmployedNurse


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  1. I enjoyed this article. One of the things that I do to help a new nurse if I see her being bullied is to empower her.
    New nurses need to understand what is acceptable and non-acceptable behavior in the workplace. They are usually focused on learning how things work in the new job, that they suffer unnecessarily from the bullying. They need to confront the bullying from the beginning.
    Giving a new nurse moral support and telling the others to be patient with her/him also helps.

  2. Joyce- I think that you make a excellent point about nipping the behavior in the bud from the start! If you allow the bullying to continue soon it can pick up momentum and become worse due to Group Think and the Clique phenomenon!

  3. I enjoyed reading your article Erica, I have never considered sacrifice as one of the reasons for bullying. I have always felt that bulling by women in the workplace is based in women’s inherent feelings of insecurity and vulnerability that is often instilled from an early age as a societal norm. Basically women feel better about them selves if they denigrate others as being less than themselves. They elevate their feelings of self worth by “down treading” others. The new nurse is especially at risk because she has not established a peer group to support her.

    It is not however just the new nurse, but experienced nurses, especially travel nurses that can fall victim to this behavior. Many contracts are canceled not because a nurse is incompetent but because she wasn’t liked by the other nurses on the unit. The staff nurses will come up with “made-up” valid reasons to justify getting rid of her, when the real reason is she did not “fit.” I have learned over the 5 years I have been traveling to say as little about myself as is possible because someone will have issues with something. In addition, it still astounds me how much racialism is still out there and this comes from all ethnicities.
    All in all bulling by woman is a complex matter. Educating and arming new nurses will provide ways that they can deal/prevent this stress. Better yet it will provide an acknowledgement from management that they have an understanding of the possible hurdles a new nurse may encounter.

  4. Jackie
    I agree that societal norms play a part and is a factor.
    But, I believe that it goes deeper than that. I would have never thought sacrifice would have played a part either!
    However, from personal conversations with a large number of female nurses, I repeatedly heard a common theme. How much nursing has caused them to sacrifice in their quality of life. You are right, combine the theme of sacrifice with the societal issues of being a woman and the result can be workplace bullying.

  5. Great article Erica. This is a topic I have long pondered since becoming a nurse. I agree with some of your points Erica, but I also agree wholeheartedly with Jackie Khan.

    I firmly believe that most of the issues in nursing (including the pervasive bullying) are related to personal development issues that many of us nurses have.

    This is not to attack my fellow nurses, but I do believe that many only educate themselves in school and then education stops. It is VITAL that every nurse -and every person – continue to self educate on concepts such as emotional development, awareness, and self esteem. When you take a person who is emotionally immature and place them in the pressure cooker of nursing, the result can (and often is) disastrous. Nursing skills are good, but what about skills that come from internal self development like inter-personal relations and managing emotions. This is a deep issue with roots that need to be addressed.

    Great post!

  6. Erica this is a fantastic article on bullying and really gets one of the underlying reasons why this terrible practice continues. I think many nurses may be confused with the amount of sacrifice this is required to practice as a nurse. And sacrificing your dignity, confidence, and your positivity to bullying nurses is something that no nurse should ever have to do.
    Scrubs Magazine did a round of up of several articles related to bullying and how nurses can deal with it. It’s a great compliment to this fantastic article http://bit.ly/11l6w12.