“Nurses Eat Their Young”: What Is Really Behind the Old Stereotype

“Nurses Eat Their Young”: What Is Really Behind the Old Stereotype

Nurses are routinely listed as one of the United States’ “most trusted professions” because of the tenderness and care that we routinely show our patients. Yet, many of us are decidedly less gentle when dealing with our colleagues: nursing is also recognized as one of the most unwelcoming professions for recent graduates.
Exhausted Nurse
Ximena Lama-Rondon

  ·  

November 2, 2022

Table of Contents

I can’t recall the first time I heard “nurses eat their young,” – but it was long before I sent in my initial nursing school application. For many prospective students, it may turn out to be the reason why they opt for a different major altogether.

It’s not enough to try to make ourselves less appetizing. Let’s look at why nurses eat their young, how this plays out in real life, and what we can do to create friendlier hospital floors. After all, we are the ones who will inherit them!

Do Nurses really “Eat Their Young”?

The first recorded use of “Nurses eat their young” dates back to 1986 by Nursing Professor Judith Meissner. Workplace bullying in nursing has become pervasive: approximately 30% of American nurses report experiencing some sort of abuse at the hand of colleagues. It is now recognized as a significant factor in burnout and one of the most common reasons listed when a nurse leaves their job.

So what does the “eating their young” culture look like? According to the Journal of Nursing Education Practice, it usually includes two main behaviors: bullying and hazing. 

Both are forms of lateral violence (abuse aimed at those of equal standing) and they are usually associated with schoolyards and frat houses. However, they are slightly different.

Bullying usually seeks to exclude a specific member of the team.

In workplace bullying, someone is routinely embarrassed, harassed, and systematically excluded from the rest of the group. Examples include:

  • Sneering or mocking someone in the break room
  • Name-calling
  • Ignoring calls for help
  • Withholding information or refusing to communicate
  • Sabotaging work or undermining tasks

On the other hand, hazing is usually conducted by a group to “test” a new team member.

Hazing is meant to see if a new nurse is fit to be included among the others by placing them in difficult situations. This means:

  • Dumping a hefty workload on a coworker
  • Leaving a complex procedure on an inexperienced nurse
  • Subjecting a nurse to a fast interrogation or “grilling”
  • Berating or publicly highlighting non-critical mistakes

Hazing is more challenging to recognize than bullying, making it more pervasive. In some cases, older nurses haze younger ones in an attempt to help them “toughen up” or “remedy what they didn’t teach us in nursing school.” Even if well-meaning, hazing rarely yields the desired effect: losing self-confidence, getting flustered, or adding extra pressure won’t help us make better clinical decisions.  

On the other hand, bullying is typical “mean girl behavior,” and it is near-impossible to pass as altruism, tough love, or a desire to educate. Plus, its more extreme examples can quickly put patients in harm’s way.

Why do (Some) Nurses do This?

The paradox between external gentleness and internal abuse did not form itself in a vacuum. Many factors have played a role in propagating bullying in nursing. None of these is an excuse for individual bullies, and fortunately, they do not affect every workplace in the country. However, each one has added a grain of sand to the problem.

It’s part of healthcare 

Hazing and bullying are not exclusive to nursing. Hospitals attract high-achieving and competitive people and force them to work together in an environment where emotions run high. Many healthcare professions have a culture of “drama,” where egos and personal rivalries shape daily interactions – there’s an entire TV subgenre devoted to exploring these issues.

In particular, hazing practices are also widespread among medical students. Medical internships are designed to dump long hours and undesirable shifts on trainees. On medical rounds, students are routinely grilled and ridiculed by their attendings for any wrong answers. As nursing training became more academically demanding, some nursing instructors began to see Dr. Cox from Scrubs as a positive role model.

It’s a trauma response

Unfortunately, workplace violence in healthcare is now a secret epidemic. Many nurses (especially those working in Emergency rooms or psychiatry units) are routinely abused by patients or relatives. 

Most of this abuse is verbal, and there are only so many insults we can take until our empathy and compassion begin to erode. In some cases, insults and harassment become so normalized that they are no longer seen as “a big deal.” This makes it “acceptable” (or seemingly normal) to insult or harass coworkers.

Nursing schools socialize us this way

Many nursing schools also exacerbate the drive to compete and outshine each other. This is partly done to increase their own academic ranking: top nursing schools heavily advertise their NCLEX® pass rate. But to get a 90% pass rate, you need to weed the weakest students out of the program.

As a result, many lecturers now make students from the same cohort feel like they are competing for a limited number of licenses (which is not true! There’s enough for everyone). Others provide “preferential allocations,” recommendations, and residency programs to their top-performing students. 

Plus, the way clinicals are structured can also foster the creation of cliques and internal rivalries. Often, a larger class will be divided into smaller groups of four or five students who will take all their rotations together and get assigned specific group projects. This fosters very efficient teams, but it can also make you unable to work with other people.

It allows nurses to channel their feelings of insecurity

From police departments to schoolyards, psychologists have found that insecure people are more likely to engage in bullying behavior. 

Many nurses feel they have many reasons to feel insecure or unsafe at work.

At some hospitals, we are still treated like the bottom of the barrel by physicians and administrators. Long hours, arbitrary shift scheduling, chaotic shifts, and supply shortages can make you feel like you have no control over your environment. 

One of the ways to cope with this is to pass the abuse onto someone else (especially someone younger or with fewer privileges). Other times, bullying is used to put down a coworker who is competing for the same promotion or is achieving outstanding results.

As a team gets progressively demoralized, its members are also more likely to feel powerless, making it more likely they will act as passive bystanders when they see someone else being bullied.

There’s a bit of “grandpa attitude.”

You know: “in my day, we had to walk five miles in the snow every day, with no shoes.”

Some older nurses trained under very different conditions than we did. Depending on your country or your state, some of your older coworkers may have been expected to bring coffee to the unit’s doctors, work longer shifts, or deal with downright abusive unit managers.

And if they endured that, why shouldn’t you? This is a common justification for “dumping” patients or refusing calls for help: “I had to watch over 12 patients with no help when I was a new graduate, and it made me a better nurse!” Slightly younger nurses may have been bullied by their superiors and are simply passing it on to the next generation.

How to Make Yourself Inedible: 4 Strategies to Protect Yourself from Bullying in Nursing

The good news: as awareness of workplace violence in nursing increases, change is indeed coming! However, you can expect this will be done little by little. You may be unlucky enough to end up in a toxic work environment at some point in your career or even while still a student and these tips will help you be prepared to deal with it.

Be assertive when communicating

Nursing relies on teamwork and clear expectations. Yet, it is a primarily female profession, and many of us are still struggling with years of conditioning that are meant to make us less assertive. This opens the gate to allusions, indirect criticism, and passive aggression.

Even if you fear you may sound bossy or “a bother,” you should formulate any requests clearly and assertively. This is something you can even practice in advance. Rehearse how to say:

  • “I need help with this task.”
  • “Please don’t say *name or nickname* in public.”
  • “I did not like how you addressed me earlier.”
  • “The way you treated *coworker* made me uncomfortable.”

Speak up when you are uncomfortable

We can commit to treating others kindly and promise ourselves never to be the bully. However, we can’t always control whether there will be a bully in our unit. Even if you weren’t the target, if bullying becomes normalized, it will eventually harm your work environment too.

Speak up if you ever see another coworker hazing or belittling someone else. Approach the bully privately and tell them that what they did was wrong. Interrupt any berating sessions and show your support towards the victim. Enroll in bystander training to learn how to stop bullying as it happens.

Role-play scenarios before clinicals

Roleplaying is a tried and true nursing school tactic. Most of us have had to play out a head-to-toe examination or a family intervention in front of the rest of the class. As awkward as it may feel, roleplaying helps you be prepared ahead of a complex scenario, and it gives you a chance to stand in someone else’s shoes. 

Talk to your instructors to include workplace bullying as a possible roleplay scenario.

Embody civility and empathy towards your classmates

The task of building a kinder and friendlier workplace begins in your classroom. Model the behaviors you would like to see in future colleagues. Reach out to people from other study groups or cohorts for social activities. Avoid class drama, “corridor talk,” or mean comments about other students.

And if you ever see one of your mates down after clinicals, buy them a cup of coffee. Be the support you would like to get if a similar incident happened to you.

The New Generation Calls for Change

For many nurses under 40, the time to change the “nurses eat their young” culture is now. Forums like Reddit or TikTok now provide a place to discuss many of the problems that had been swept under the rug for years.

The result? Journal articles now openly discuss the effects of bullying on nurse burnout. A group of nursing influencers has started a campaign to turn the stereotype into “Nurses support their young.” You can sign their pledge to create a welcoming environment for the next batch of baby nurses that come after us.

Further Reading

NCLEX Changes 2023: All You Need to Know

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How to Get a Nursing Job with No Experience: Tips for New Grad Nurses

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A Day in the Life of a Nursing Student

As someone who has completed both a B.A. and a full-time nursing program, I won’t hesitate to say it: being a student nurse is significantly more demanding than pursuing a regular undergraduate degree.

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