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InCrowd Survey: Why 66% of Nurses Experience Workplace Harassment and What Must Be Done to Prevent It

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Post By Sarah Mayer

February 15, 2017

In early January 2017, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) met with National Nurses United members, approving the group’s petition for a standard to prevent workplace harassment in healthcare. The petition came soon after the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released data that 52% of all workplace violence occurred against healthcare and social assistance workers in 2014. The data indicated a 110% increase since 2005 in abusive incidents in hospitals alone. Given the exponential growth that these occurrences have seen in the last few years, and the escalating aggressiveness that healthcare workers are facing, InCrowd wanted to consult our panel of experienced nurses and highlight the pervasive issue.

Averaging 12 years of experience, 271 US nurses reported on the harassment they experienced and the steps that their employers may or may not take to protect them in the healthcare setting. Two thirds of nurses surveyed identified as women and one third as men. 73% of the nurses reached by our microsurvey tool work in hospitals.

When asked to which extent harassment of female nurses is a problem in healthcare, our network echoed the sentiment of the National Nurses United group. Over 66% stressed that harassment is an issue. An LPN from California with 9 years of experience commented, “It is a huge, overlooked problem. Most people feel it is something you just have to deal with being a nurse.” Several nurses mentioned that harassment is met with a tone of acceptance and often goes unreported or underreported.

“Nurses almost expect to be treated this way” reported a nurse supervisor from Indiana. It seems that issues of harassment affect nurses of different ages, locations, and facility types who are practicing at different levels and with varied experience. But harassment was not every nurse’s experience. Some felt they couldn’t comment on the severity of the issue because they personally had not witnessed aggression  or were simply unsure of the degree to which it is a problem.

Other nurses applauded their workplaces for not tolerating any sort of inappropriate behavior.  One oncology nurse from Tennessee with over 30 years of experience commented, “It is not accepted where I work”. Experiences like this one show that prevention begins at the administrative level. When explicit rules for the workplace are set and defended, nurses are no longer left to tolerate this behavior.

The major instigators of healthcare workplace harassment are the very people on which nurses focus their work, the patients. Alarmingly, some nurses believe the issue is inherent to the patient-nurse dynamic, “Being in close proximity to patients, and the fact that they feel close to you after being their caregiver for a length of time, opens the door to expressing feelings that are inappropriate. It is a common problem,” long-term care nurse, OK, 8 years of experience. Others commented on their patients’ advanced age, psychotic symptoms or traumatic brain injuries, which may have left them with an inability to modify their behavior.

Dealing with these mental health issues are not something new for nurses. As we reported earlier in 2016, mental health and the availability of mental healthcare is one of the many concerns for nurses during the election and now post inauguration.

Nurses were not, however, removed from the impact of other workplace harassers. Besides their patients, 31% of nurses indicated nurse colleagues were the main perpetrators of harassment in the workplace. A registered nurse shared his experience:

“the phrase ‘nurses eat their young’ is entirely true. I experienced verbal harassment at the hands of my colleagues when I first began my nursing career, which left me feeling stupid and – in truth – that I did not belong in the profession anymore.” NJ, 6 years experience.

It seems that in some healthcare settings, nurses do not have the ability to support each other.

The third major source of harassment came from colleagues who were not nurses. One floor nurse from Utah reported, “I was harassed by a doctor and reported it to administration, but I was labeled as troublemaker. I just moved on, since nurses are easier to replace than doctors, as I was told.”

 

Also included in responses to this question, was the effect of gender on the harassment of nurses. Men commented that it is the nature of nursing work in general that garners harassment for all nurses. Despite resonating with a female-dominated profession, it may be short-sighted to associate this verbal and/or physical harassment with women alone.

Harassment of any kind is not to be tolerated in the American healthcare system, or anywhere else. These health care professionals who have dedicated their professional, and at times personal, lives to the care of patients need to be better protected. If nurses do not feel safe and supported in the workplace, how can we expect quality patient care to continue? Some facilities and administrators are aware of these issues and will take action where warranted, but we continue to wonder if those steps are enough.

 

Coming soon, InCrowd will further investigate gender bias in the nursing field by examining salaries and growth opportunities.

 

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