Dr. Renee Thompson: Aggressive Nurse Bullying: Signs and Symptoms

Dr. Renee Thompson: Aggressive Nurse Bullying: Signs and Symptoms

This post is the eighth in a series of posts on nurse bullying and conflict in the workplace written by Dr. Renee Thompson, DNP, RN, CMSRN. Dr. Thompson is one of the top professional development and anti-bullying thought leaders in nursing.

Nancy didn’t like Chris and everyone knew it. When they would have catfights at the nurses’ station or get into a shouting match in the locker room, everyone just ignored them. “That’s just the way they are.” Their co-workers just tried to avoid them.

But then one day, Nancy took it too far.

On a Saturday evening, in the middle of the hallway, Nancy pointed her finger at Chris and said, “My boyfriend knows what shuttle you take. He’ll be waiting for you and is going to beat the tar out of you!”

Was she serious or just kidding around?

Seventy-three percent of all nurses report being the victim of or at least witnessing bullying behavior in the workplace. Most behaviors involve open criticism, being treated in a humiliating and degrading way, ignored, given unfair assignments, or spreading false rumors. However, some bullying behavior can lead to physical violence.

A nurse refuses to get out of another nurses “chair” so the nurse throws a cup of water in her face. A nurse doesn’t like the assignment she received from the charge nurse so she pulls her hair and pushes a chair across the room.

How do you know when your co-worker might become violent?

1. It starts with verbal assaults

According to law enforcement officers, most physical attacks start with verbal assaults. Rarely does anyone get physical with their targets before they verbally assault them. They may curse, yell, even though an adult temper tantrum (I once witnessed a nursing leader jump up and down and shake her fists because she got mad!!). Pay attention to nurses who verbally criticize, especially in front of others. They are more likely to escalate their behaviors to physical violence.

In Nancy and Chris’s case, their arguments began as mild nit picking, but then gradually escalated to louder and louder verbal attacks. Their arguing got so loud one night that a patient called the operator to complain that their yelling was keeping her awake!

2. Many aggressive bullies threaten their targets

No one thinks it will happen to him or her, but when someone actually threatens you, take it seriously. Many times, victims of physical assault admit that their aggressor warned them before they engaged in violence.

Chris took Nancy’s threat seriously. Security escorted Chris to her car, and sure enough, Nancy’s boyfriend was found close by with a baseball bat in his hand!

3. Aggressive bullies may show signs of mental health problems

Bullies who resort to physical violence are not mentally healthy. You may see evidence of dysfunction manifested in other ways: labile emotions (laughing hysterically one minute and crying the next); unpredictable and inconsistent behaviors; or illogical thinking.

Nancy was suffering from a bipolar disorder and wasn’t compliant with her treatment. But nobody knew. They just thought she was “crazy”.

Please note: Not all individuals with mental health disorders resort to bullying. However, it’s important that you heighten your awareness regarding mental health disease.

Please, please do not justify someone’s aggressive behavior by saying, “Well, that’s just the way she is.” Take all potential indications for violence seriously by reporting any threat or verbal attack to the appropriate person/department. Document every situation with a co-worker that you believe may lead to physical harm. Speak up and tell others if you’re concerned.

I’d love to read your comments about the topic of aggressive bullying. Has it happened to you? Reach out to me on Facebook!

Thanks for reading. Take care, stay connected and be safe!


Dr. Renee Thompson is a keynote speaker, author, award-winning nurse blogger, and professional development/anti-bullying thought leader. Renee spends the majority of her time helping healthcare and academic organizations address and eliminate workplace bullying. To find out more about Renee, please visit her website. American Sentinel University friends and family can get 25% off Renee’s great anti-bullying products – simply enter in the code: AMSENT16.

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