Why Do Nurses Eat Their Young?


By Justine Barksby

This is not a new term to be used in conjunction with nursing with many reports describing bullying and intimidation from staff (both qualified nurses and care assistants) to students while on placements.

You often hear terms like ‘it was harder in my day’ ‘I was left in charge as a second-year student’ and other similar terms to justify such behaviour.

A lot of things happened in the past that we now know are not appropriate so that is no justification. Yet that continues to be the ‘go to’ excuse for such behaviour by those guilty of it.

These behaviours baffle me, students are the future and while that may sound like a lyric from a 1990s ballad, it is true. We should nurture and support our future. This is more true now than at any other time in my 30-year career. The coronavirus pandemic and other issues mean the current nursing shortage is critical and a bullying culture will do nothing to help this.

It is also incredibly short-sighted, no decent student nurse will want to work in an environment where bullying is the norm, this sort of behaviour will do nothing to increase your recruitment numbers. It will do the opposite, it will drive them away, often out of the profession entirely or at best, to work somewhere else.

Recent events have highlighted to me that perhaps this mentality is being reinforced by our own governing body. Covid-19 had a huge impact on students being able to access placements at all and when they could, often those placements were restricted regarding what activities students could engage in due to covid protocols, and yet despite this, the NMC continued to not even consider reducing the number of practice hours students have to achieve.

The students who commenced their courses in September 2019 were the worse impacted by this and many have had to work extremely hard, in their holiday periods etc to undertake enough hours to meet the NMC requirements and this was through no fault of their own.

I can hear the groans now, I am not saying we should have sent first-year students out into practice at the height of lockdown, nor am I necessarily saying we should reduce practice hours requirements long term, I am simply using this as an example of the lack of support and empathy shown to our future students even at the most challenging period in recent times from our own governing body.

The number of hours our students have to undertake though is another debate and it could be argued that this focus on the number of hours students spend on placement is simply a proxy for quality control, where we measure quantity not quality. The new standards are supposed to have improved how we measure our students abilities with the introduction of new roles such as practice assessors and academic assessors which should facilitate a focus on competence and quality and yet still the focus is on how many hours they do.

If the nursing profession and our governing body have confidence in the new standards and indeed the robust methods of measuring competence and achievement there should be no need for such stringent focus on quantity.

This demand for hours means often services are utilised for placements that are not ideal but are simply a necessity to meet this constant demand for hours.

Surely a better way is to focus on the nature of placements, have a few less hours required to be achieved but a focus on the nature of those placements on what the students can be exposed to in those areas. A reduction in hours would open up possibilities of flexible programmes student nurses could undertake too, another step to address our nursing shortages.

It is an overused term now but coronavirus pandemic truly was an unprecedented time and unprecedented times calls for unprecedented measures and yet still there was no budge on the number of hours student nurses were required to do in practice.

As I said previously, this represents what seems to be a culture in nursing of, ‘it was tough in my day so I’ll make it tougher for these students’.

I despaired recently when some second-year student nurses told me they were considering finishing their degree but never working as nurses- this was based on their experiences in practice- these were really good students who would make amazing nurse leaders of the future, if they come into the profession.

Current students, you could break this cycle, you could be the change agent, remember how you felt when you were treated badly, bullied and intimidated and make sure that stops now.

Dr Justine Barksby is associate professor and head of division (learning disabilities and mental health), De Montfort University



  • Ellen J Conway

    March 12, 2023 16:19 50

    In my 42 yrs of Nursing, all in hospital until 2 yrs ago, I have never experienced bullying from senior nurses. However, I frequently experienced it as the victim of bullying by younger nurses and many PCT’s, who were also aggressive and demanding towards me. I never experienced it from a male nurse, only females.

  • Kay Hurd, RN, MSN, RNP

    March 12, 2023 05:43 49

    I am a retired RN, NP with 40 years of experience in nursing. I have practiced and taught nursing. We sometimes forget that nursing is an applied science. We apply what we have been taught and experienced. The patients we serve deserve the best nursing care that can be given. I know long hours, difficult staff, difficult patients are obstacles, but we are a profession of “carers”. I recently became a receiver (patient) of hospital nursing care. As I talked with them, I saw young nurses, some going through the tasks of nursing, some climbing the ladder to advanced practice without knowing where or what specialization it would take or to administration, and some taking the time to sit or stand and really listen or talk to patients and acknowledge that they are talking to another human being. Nurses care for patients, that’s what we do, as RN’s on the floor, Administrators, Advanced Practiced Nurses, Nurses in the community and Educators. We care for patients that’s our job. We must never forget that.

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