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4 Compelling Theories Why Nurses ‘Eat Their Young’

Nurse bullying is a well-documented phenomenon that still pervades the profession decades after someone first pointed it out. That person was Judith Meissner, RN, MSN, who mentioned that “nurses eat their young” in a 1986 article.

Since then, research shows that up to 85 percent of nurses have been verbally harassed at some point during the careers, and 1 in 3 bullied nurses has considered leaving the profession as a result.

In order to stop nurse bullying for good, it’s important to understand why it happens in the first place. Here are some theories from various accredited sources on the topic.

Nurses are mistreated by doctors and other professions at their workplace.

In a TEDx talk back in 2016, nurse Kathleen Bartholomew explained that nurses are often treated as the bottom of the totem pole by physicians and others. A common reaction when a dominant group oppresses another group is members of the oppressed group lash out at each other.

Nurses lack control at work.

A 2007 study by nurse researchers Cheryl Woelfle and Ruth McCaffrey found that nurses crave autonomy, accountability, and control over their profession,” and this absence “can often result in displaced and self-destructive aggression.”

Nurses can be competitive.

While nursing attracts some of the most caring and attentive people in the world, the intense nature of the profession also means it attracts those who are eager to prove themselves. As Dr. Renee Thompson, the foremost expert on nurse bullying explained it to Becker’s Hospital Review, “Theories suggest that age-old female ‘competition’ [in the medical field] has shifted from competing over a man to competing over status, respect and position in the nursing environment.”

Nursing is dominated by women.

Similarly, the nursing profession is made up of 90 percent women. According to research on Lippincott Nursing Center, women are more likely than men to display relational aggression, which looks often like “character defamation, humiliation, betrayal of trust and exclusion.” In other words? Bullying.

The good news is it’s easy for you to protect yourself from nurse bullies and take a stand so others don’t have to fall victim to this bad behavior. Learn more.

Have you encountered a nurse bully? Tell us your story in the comments!

Violence, Incivility, & Bullying, American Nurses Association.
Nurse on nurse., NCBI.
Bullying Among Nurses, Lippincott Nursing Center.

Last updated on 10/8/19

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