Is High Stress to Blame for Nurse Bullying Behavior?

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Have you ever worked with a coworker who is super nice and easy to work with as long as everything is quiet but immediately turns into Mr. Hyde when things get hectic?

Shanice is typically friendly and a good team player. She’s been a nurse for just under 8 years and recently made the decision to get her BSN. Shanice has 4 kids, cares for her aging mom and rumor has it that her husband isn’t very supportive and has a drinking problem. Everyone likes working with Shanice, well, as long as all of her patients are stable and she doesn’t get any admissions. But, her coworkers know to stay away from her any time her patients become difficult, crash, or she gets hit with too many admissions and discharges.

Why? Because Shanice turns into Mr. Hyde!

She’ll stomp about the unit, yelling, throwing her hands in the air, huffing and puffing, and will bull doze anyone who gets in her way. Even the physicians make comments, “I see Shanice is on the war path again.”

Nobody says anything about it, even the manager. They just sigh and say, “Well, that’s just Shanice. She’s so dramatic. She’ll eventually calm down.”

Is Shanice a bully?

I double dog dare any one of us to claim that we’ve never gotten “testy” with a coworker or “stomped about” on our units or departments when we’ve been under stress.

We can all be Dr. Jekyll when things go well and maybe a softer version of Mr. Hyde when they don’t. We are human after all, and when under stress, we don’t always behave.


Let’s face it. Nurses work in one of the most stressful environments in the world. We deal with life and death situations under an umbrella of unpredictability. You never know what you’re going to get when you walk in the door. We all know the “easy” patient who ends up crashing on us without warning. Or, as soon as we walk onto our unit, the charge nurse says, “Sorry. But I have an admission waiting for you.” You find yourself curtly saying, “Can I at least take off my jacket and swipe in??”

Nurses work in stressful environments and our behaviors can be triggered by stressful events. These can be considered short term stress as they occur within the timeframe of our shift.

Common triggers that elicit our short-term stress response at work:

  • High census, high patient acuity, short staffing
  • Chronic unresolved system issues
  • Lack of resources to do your job
  • Working with unsupportive coworkers
  • Working for a toxic boss
  • Demanding patients and their family members

However, we all know that nurses don’t leave their personal lives at home when they swipe in. Those problems can also affect behavior and performance in the workplace.

When the stress is prolonged, they can be considered long term stressors: Strained relationships at home, caring for an aging parent, dealing with addiction, raising a family as a single mom or dad, financial constraints, etc.

Let’s face it. Being a nurse is stressful and so is being a human.  When humans are under stress, we sometimes don’t behave nicely to each other.


When nurses take their frustrations out on each other, we are tapping into our primitive response. We are essentially displacing our aggression onto to something else (or somebody else), thereby, reducing our internal stress. It’s a survival mechanism designed to protect us. Studies show a direct link between stress and aggressive behaviors.

Results of high stress

  • We become less cooperative
  • We become myopic and only focus on what WE need to do – not others
  • We get short tempered and may lash out at each other (my dad calls it getting testy)

In Shanice’s case, she already entered into work everyday trying to cope with long-term stressors (caring for her mother, raising 4 children, going to school, and dealing with a husband’s addiction). Although she did well normally, as soon as any minor short-term stressor occurred (meds not available, an admission 45 minutes before the end of her shift, etc.), she turned into a pressure cooker and let out steam on everyone!


It’s humanly impossible to completely remove stress from our lives and when you think about it, who would want to be completely stress free. None of us would get out of bed!! Although, it’s important to reduce your long term stress, here are a few tips to reducing your short term stress:

Know your stress response

Our bodies give clues when we are getting stressed. The key is to know when you are starting down that path and to DO SOMETHING to redirect your stress before you lash out at others.  For me, when I’m stressed, I can’t have any clutter around me. So, I’ll start organizing and cleaning anything that’s cluttered and dirty.

Know the stress response of your coworkers

When you’ve been working with other nurses for a long time, you get to know them. As soon as Shanice starts stomping down the hall, her coworkers know she is stressed. Start paying attention to your coworkers and try to identify when they are getting stressed before they act out. Funny….my husband knows that if he sees me starting to organize and cleaning in a frantic way, that I must be stressed!


When you know your stress response, you can catch yourself going down that path earlier. Once you recognize you are eliciting your stress response, DO SOMETHING to stop it.  Some of the best ways are to just stop, pause, take a deep breath and then ask for help.

If you see your coworker getting stressed, it might not be the best time to ask how you can help. The best time is to ask BEFORE they demonstrate their stress response. In Shanice’s case, her coworkers could mention to her that when she gets stressed, she starts stomping down the hall. That it’s disruptive to the rest of the unit and you want to help. Come up with a plan to help whenever she gets that way. By identifying how you can help this person ahead of time, you can intervene in a way that HELPS – not make the situation worse.


Every now and then I get “testy” with my husband or friends. When I realize I’m taking my stress out on them, I stop and apologize.

Do this at work. If you’ve been testy, once you’ve calmed down, go back and apologize to anyone you may have offended. After all, we are all human and don’t always behave. Remember, it’s never too late to apologize to someone!

Can stress lead to bullying? Maybe. Whether it’s bullying, incivility, or just our stress response, the point is:   Recognize that when stressed, we can all misbehave.

Stop just accepting any bad behavior as the norm or “just the way she is”.  Although you may understand where Mr. Hyde comes from, kindly help him to leave.

Thanks so much for reading. Take care. Be kind and stay connected.

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Dr. Renee Thompson works with healthcare organizations that want to overcome the leadership and clinical challenges their people face every day.

If you’d like to find out more about her programs, please visit her website

Contact Renee today at to bring her to your organization to talk about ending the cycle of nurse bullying.

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2 thoughts on “Is High Stress to Blame for Nurse Bullying Behavior?”

  1. Pingback: Bullying & the 3 P’s - The Nursing NotesThe Nursing Notes

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