Are Nurses Really Mean? and Other Workplace Misperceptions

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Written by Danielle Roques, BSN, RN Content Writer, IntelyCare
A nurse takes a short break to recover from a particularly stressful shift.

Nursing is consistently rated as the most trusted and ethical profession in the U.S. Nurses are commended for their compassion, empathy, and self-sacrifice in providing care to patients. Yet, there’s a lingering idea that nurses “eat their young” and that workplace bullying is a major concern up and down the chain in nursing.

This reputation can lead people both inside and outside the profession to ask the question, “Why are nurses so mean?” The true question should be slightly different. What are the faulty structures and staffing systems that leave staff members feeling incapable, exhausted, and alone? Anyone might be liable to be worried, short, stressed, or not their best self in such situations.

In this article, we explore perceptions of nurse bullying, delve into reasons why nurses may be sensitive and prone to unhealthy stress responses, and provide solutions for easing healthcare burdens to reduce burnout and workplace incivility.

The Significance of Nurse Burnout on Workplace Morale

The nursing profession is high-pressure and high-stress — patient lives are at stake, and there are small margins for errors and delays. Over 75% of nurses report high levels of burnout and job-related anxiety. Often, these nurses leave their place of work or quit nursing entirely, costing hospitals an average of $7 million annually in training and recruiting costs.

Without management support or time and space to breathe, workplace stress can manifest in unhealthy behaviors like aggression, passivity, and absenteeism. After witnessing these stress responses, it’s easy to understand why some might over-generalize their individual experiences by asking “Why are nurses so toxic?”

It’s important to get to the root of behavioral issues facing some nursing professionals and to discover why they may be feeling overwhelmed and powerless. Facilities that focus on supporting nurses and eliminating a culture of blame can significantly enhance coping mechanisms and improve overall nursing workplace satisfaction.

When provided with clinical and emotional support resources during their first year in an organization, turnover rates for new employees drop from 35% to 6%. Each nursing employee that chooses to stay at their place of work saves facilities up to $88,000 incentivizing the prioritization of nurse retention when considering facility financial goals. So, instead of asking, “Why are nurses so mean?” healthcare leaders are better served addressing the main causes of stress and burnout.

Exploring Healthcare Misperceptions: FAQ

Nurses and other healthcare professionals are limited in the amount of stress and responsibility they can handle while at work. When they feel overwhelmed and unsupported, healthy communication and coping strategies can break down.

Below, we answer some commonly asked questions regarding perceptions of nurse incivility, and show how these generalizations and misconceptions reveal the need for additional staff support. By understanding the underlying causes of unhealthy behaviors, facility leaders can develop workplace wellness solutions to improve conflict resolution and interprofessional communication.

Why Are Nurses so Mean to Each Other?

In high-stress environments like the emergency room (ER), the question “Why are ER nurses so mean?” may be asked by patients and even healthcare staff. When patient acuity is high and staffing levels are low, nurses often feel incapable of performing their assigned tasks and breakdowns in communication occur.

Prolonged periods of stress lead to passive-aggressive behavior, departmental division, and low staff morale. Like other team-based professions, high-quality nursing requires healthy communication and delegation.

Nursing is traditionally a female-dominated profession and is often wrongly classified as a profession of toxic bullying and aggression because of the disproportionate number of women in the workplace and societal expectations about women’s behavior. However, the stress responses often displayed have nothing to do with gender and everything to do with the stress and demands of the healthcare profession.

Healthcare burnout is not limited to just women or nursing professionals. Many employees witness doctors interacting with other team members and wonder, “Why are doctors so mean to nurses?” Long working hours and constant decision making can lead all healthcare professionals to exhaustion, disengagement, and poor emotional regulation.

Healthcare leaders can minimize lashing-out behavior and encourage healthy team debriefing by promoting rest breaks during long shifts. When nurses feel respected and cared for, they have energy to build closer relationships with other nurses and develop lasting team-based strategies to improve care.

Why Are Nurses so Mean to Students?

Nurse-student relationships are often mutually rewarding and create exciting learning opportunities during patient care. However, for some, precepting can feel like an extra responsibility. Many nurses feel that they lack the training and education necessary to teach inexperienced nurses and often perceive mentorship as an unnecessary burden.

Facility leaders may also wonder “Why are nurses so mean to medical students and aspiring nurses?” A better approach is to look for ways to provide extra support for nurses precepting and providing patient care. By deploying extra bedside nurses to hospital units to assist during training periods, preceptors are more capable of developing meaningful relationships and experiences for student nurses.

Some hospitals pay a shift differential for nurse preceptors to encourage experienced nurses to take a more demanding leadership role. It can also be helpful to provide paid classroom preceptor training programs away from the bedside. Setting aside protected time to teach new educators effective skills and teaching strategies helps prepare them for the challenges of precepting new nurses.

Many care providers forget what it’s like to be new and inexperienced — by providing them with the tools and techniques to train incoming staff members, you can empower them to handle the extra training responsibility.

Why Are Nurses so Mean to CNAs and Other Assistive Staff?

Often, incivility between nurses and assistive staff is caused by a general misunderstanding of the other specialty’s roles and responsibilities. Additionally, unrealistic expectations can frustrate both parties, which can lead to dysfunctional communication and collaboration among multidisciplinary teams.

Facility leaders can educate staff members on the duties of each provider to foster better understanding and effective delegation. Performing this training in a group setting with all parties present can encourage discussion and goal setting.

Why Are Nurses so Mean to Residents and Doctors?

Despite being on the same care team, many nurses and doctors often communicate as if they’re on opposing sides. When healthcare staff feel overwhelmed and overworked, they often fail to recognize that other team members are experiencing similar problems and frustrations.

Role misunderstanding also plays a key role in inefficient communication between nursing staff and medical staff. It’s important to address workplace cynicism and support nurses and doctors through the workplace trauma they may jointly experience on a daily basis. Facilities can help by allowing employees to share concerns and encouraging participation in cooperative morale-boosting initiatives.

Hosting multidisciplinary debrief sessions in or outside of the workplace can help relieve pent-up stress and tension. Involving clinical leadership professionals like nurse managers and medical chiefs can help build camaraderie and unity between nurses and medical professionals.

Healthcare leaders can also help improve intra-staff relations by developing structural, stress-relieving solutions applicable to all roles and specialties. Taking a team-oriented approach to improving workplace morale encourages employee buy-in and initiates system-wide change.

3 Ways to Reduce Nurse Workload and Improve Staff Wellness

If healthcare facilities are faced with a culture that apparently results in “mean” behavior by nursing staff, managers facilities can help change these stereotypes by supporting staff members through difficult professional and personal moments and by creating outlets to relieve stress. The following three strategies can help healthcare leaders get started:

1. Support Work-Life Balance

A healthy work-life balance can help improve workplace civility and decrease unhealthy staff stress responses. Facilities that offer paid vacation, sick days, and mental health leave as part of a staff benefits package can help employees recover from difficult days.

Encourage staff bonding outside of the workplace and help teams establish lasting relationships for improved staff retention. Additionally, team building activities can help employees see each other as robust, engaging individuals, not just other professionals on the unit providing patient care.

2. Build “Tranquility Spaces” for Stress Relief

One way to improve nurse morale is to ensure that staff members get shift breaks with complete separation from patient care responsibilities. Creating “tranquility spaces” where nurses and other team members can relax and recover from stressful moments helps improve morale and reduce emotional fatigue.

Solicit feedback on how to design the room and encourage employees to request items to be included; facility leaders who build spaces for the exact needs and wishes of their unique staff members help employees feel seen and heard.

3. Establish Long-Term Staffing Solutions

Short staffing is a primary cause of healthcare-related stress. Poor nurse retention is detrimental to facility growth as each vacant nursing position can cost hospitals up to $88,000 annually and contributes to burnout for team members carrying the extra weight.

During staffing crises, many administrators turn to expensive short-term staffing solutions. However, with high rates of temporary staff turnover and expensive wages, short-term solutions may only perpetuate staffing issues instead of fixing the underlying problems.

Stabilizing the workforce with a combination of long-term employees and a flexible, but consistent per diem staffing pool is one way facilities could utilize money normally set aside for recruitment toward the funding of better staff benefit packages and higher clinician wages. Improving workplace morale and adding more permanent staff can help foster teamwork and long-lasting collaboration among healthcare teams.

Foster Healthy Communication and Improve Your Workplace Culture

Now that we have examined the importance of healthy communication, instead of allowing people to ask “Why are nurses so mean?” we can collectively address the underlying issues by exploring solutions to reduce work stress and improve staff morale. Let IntelyCare help ease nursing burdens and improve workplace culture at your facility with our wide range of staffing solutions.