Researcher says cyberbullies do not spare even nurses

Dr Natalia D’Souza

As nurses rally for better pay and working conditions around the country, new research by a Massey University PhD graduate highlights the growing problem of cyberbullying in the sector.

Dr Natalia D’Souza, who received her doctoral degree last week, wrote her thesis on workplace cyberbullying and found that nurses not only experience bullying by other staff, but also by patients and their families.

The following are her observations:

Workplace bullying in the health sector is well documented, but digital technology is adding a new and potentially harmful element to the experiences of nurses at work.

Constant nuisance

The nurses who participated in my study described specific differences between cyberbullying and traditional face-to-face bullying, including the ability for people outside their organisation to bully them constantly.

With traditional bullying, you would usually place bans on people and restrict their entry into the facility but, with cyberbullying, that is not possible.

So, nurses now have this additional source of bullying but there are no measures put in place to manage it.

Electronic harassment

Patient care responsibilities also make it difficult for nurses to block communication if they are being bullied by electronic channels.

I was told about a case in which a nurse was being bullied by a patient’s mother, and she used her son to gain access. She would call to ask for help for her son, but then start abusing the nurse, so the nurse was hesitant to block the calls in case it was a genuine emergency.

Cyberbullying can also affect victim’s families.

The public component

There can also be a public component to cyberbullying when abuse is posted online.

Nurses can become concerned about their professional reputation if they are cyberbullied on a public platform like social media. Sometimes their personal contact details have been posted online, or false allegations made to the Nursing Council.

This can produce a lot of anxiety as they have no control over who might see it.

Nurses in this situation worry not only about their job and their own wellbeing, but also about the effect on their families should they see the content.

Workplace issues

I have also found that nurses who were victims of cyberbullying often suffered traditional forms of workplace bullying too.

These bullying behaviours can build on each other to create even greater harm in a more complex and dynamic way.

So, the traditional bullying impacts of anxiety and depression apply, but there is an almost unique anxiety associated with the public nature of cyberbullying, along with the constant accessibility outside of work hours.

Cyberbullying can be a problem in any workplace

Impact elsewhere

While my thesis focused on the nursing profession, its implications would apply in other workplaces.

One of the things that clearly emerged from my research is that cyberbullying is still an unknown problem and organisations are not sure how to deal with it.

A lot of organisations have social media policies that outline what staff can and can’t do, but they don’t have policies to protect staff from external abuse.

I recommend explicitly including cyberbullying in workplace bullying and harassment policies. It shows staff that cyberbullying is something the organisation takes seriously and, if it happens to them, they can see that it is recognised as a form of workplace bullying and there are processes for reporting it.

Pathways for support

I also suggest that organisations create pathways for getting support from Netsafe, which can assist and support victims, including working with social media platforms to get content removed.

Cyberbullying needs to be acknowledged as a problem first, then supporting mechanisms need to be implemented to encourage people to report.

In the absence of education and prevention, it is a problem that will continue to grow because of the accessibility that electronic devices provide.

I also expect to see new types of cyberbullying as technology develops.


Natalia D’Souza is a Lecturer at the School of Management at Massey University Albany Campus based in North Shore, Auckland. (Photo Courtesy: Massey News)

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