Calling Out Bullying In Our Workplaces And Our Communities

This post is a guest submission by the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions.

In August—during the height of the presidential election campaign—I was in Chicago at a conference. I was sitting with a diverse group of people from around the United States and a gentleman from Germany. We were discussing everything from the declining wages to Black Lives Matter. The gentleman from Germany asked us, “What’s happening to America?”

A woman sitting next to me, who had been rather quiet, simply said: “We’ve stopped caring about each other.”

We have stopped caring.

I have been thinking about those words in light of the recent reports of harassment and intimidation reported around the country—and recent calls for witnesses to help victims under attack find safety and comfort. Now that these threats have been amplified, I am led to reflect on an issue that I care about deeply as a nurse, a union activist and now the president of United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals (UNAC/UHCP): workplace bullying and violence.

Most of us may think bullying was something left to the school yard.

But today, somewhere, a student, friend, family member, boss, co-worker, even an executive, is being bullied. Do we sit back and watch it happen? I say no. We need to speak out against workplace intimidation, incivility and harassment every chance we get.

In the early 1980s, I worked as a nurse in a trauma unit in Long Beach, California. We saw patients inflicted with gunshot wounds, victims of stabbings, beatings, and repeated acts of violence. When patients would kick, punch, spit, throw a urinal at us, we took it in stride. We were cursed at and threatened. Security guards were part of the health care team.

Unfortunately, our team grew to be as uncivil as the patients. Our profession is plagued by a long history of co-worker bullying. We nurses call it “eating our young.”

Define it

Bullying is repeated verbal, physical, social or psychological abuse. Examples include ridicule, disrespect and belittling. Bullying may be around sexuality, gender identity, race or culture. It may be combined with sexual harassment that includes unwelcome touching and sexually explicit comments and requests that make you feel uncomfortable.

Bullying can play out one shift at a time, one meeting at a time, one assignment at a time. It can exist anywhere and at any level of any organization. At work, bullying also manifests itself as exclusion from projects and activities related to work, being assigned pointless tasks, and other behaviors that are meant to make the person targeted feel less important and undervalued.

Nursing isn’t any different from other types of work. Hierarchy plays a huge role in our work culture—and that can set up a scenario for bullying. A hierarchy that tolerates bullying and incivility can be catastrophic to patient safety. Much like the airline industry, a culture of speaking up is fundamental to saving lives.

Speak up

I’ve known night shift RNs who would avoid calling a physician at night and wait for the next shift of physicians to avoid a dreaded conversation with a particular doctor. We nurses define ourselves as patient advocates yet we don’t always speak up. Our workers continue to tell us (through internal staff surveys) that they feel they have little influence over decisions affecting their work.

The repeated verbal and physical intimidation that health care workers deal with is workplace violence. Left unacknowledged, uninterrupted and unregulated, this behavior can and often does escalate into violence that involves physical force.

All of us have a moral responsibility to help create a positive, civil and safe workplace and society.

We need to know the signs of incivility and bullying. We need to recognize those who are being intimidated or harassed. Call it out when you hear about it or see it.

We need to rethink our actions, take to heart the call to change and be heroes.

Get involved in bullying prevention programs, workplace safety education and data collection. Be on the lookout for teaching moments and take advantage of them to spread the word.

Targets of bullying become fearful, isolated and frequently distance themselves from co-workers or their community. Some may commit desperate acts. We can’t take this lightly.

Look inward. Speak up where you see incivility. Remember to care about one another.

Denise Duncan, RN, is president of United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals (UNAC/UHCP), American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO.
The union represents 26,000 registered nurses and other health care professionals, including optometrists and pharmacists. UNAC/UHCP is one of 28 local unions partnering with Kaiser Permanente on several issues including workplace violence prevention.