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What is Lateral Violence and Why Should Nurses Care?

Career News August 13, 2013

Although nurses are often well informed about most common workplace challenges, including fatigue, stress, disease exposure and burnout; most nursing professionals are unfamiliar with lateral violence and how dangerous it can be. Lateral violence, which is also known as horizontal abuse or violence, is a serious problem that involves bullying nursing colleagues and creating an unpleasant work environment. This is an especially urgent issue in the nursing field because, according to the Massachusetts Nursing Association, nurses are particularly inclined towards bullying others and being bullied.

The Definition of Lateral Violence

Lateral violence occurs when employees commit abusive acts against their coworkers, whether those acts are emotional, verbal or physical. The behavior is often ongoing, which can make it feel like it is part of the workplace culture, rather than a dangerous practice that needs to be stopped.

According to the Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses, lateral violence can involve such harmful behaviors as withholding information, scapegoating, sabotage, gossiping, yelling, public shaming and refusing to offer help. Regardless of the intensity level of these acts, they are always harmful and should not be a part of any workplace environment.

Unfortunately, lateral violence isn’t a rare practice among nurses. The American Nurses Association reports that 48% of nurses and other healthcare professionals reported that they had witnessed strong verbal abuse in the workplace. 43% of nurses also reported that they had experienced threatening body language at work.

The Implications of Lateral Violence

Although lateral violence can occur in various types of workplaces, it is especially harmful and dangerous when it takes place in the nursing field. For nurses who are the targets of this behavior, lateral violence can lead to a wide range of physical and emotional symptoms, including depression, stress, insomnia, headaches, panic attacks and—in the most intense cases—suicide.

Studies have also shown that lateral violence among a nursing staff can put overall workplace safety at risk. Nurses who are subject to lateral violence are sometimes so affected by their own symptoms that the quality of care they give to their patients decreases.

The hospital or organization as a whole may also suffer as a result of lateral violence. The workplace dissatisfaction that results from this dangerous practice can cause nurses to quit their positions or leave the profession altogether. This means that organizations often have to spend an increased amount of money on recruitment and hiring. The organization also bears the burden of overall low productivity and staff morale. In the most severe cases, a hospital may even have to pay for legal fees if a staff member files harassment charges.

Ways to Stop Lateral Violence

Lateral violence is a serious problem that can create widespread negative effects over the staff and patients, so it’s important for all nurses to be aware of the problem, so they can help recognize it and put a stop to it.

Nurses in administrative and management positions should work with other hospital officials to create clear and strong anti-harassment policies that specifically address bullying and lateral violence. Administrators can also provide the structure and tools that allow employees to comfortably and confidently report violations of these policies.

Nurses who are the targets of lateral violence should take full advantage of their organization’s mental health counseling services, if there are any available. Victims should also be aware of how the harassment is affecting their personal health, and take measures to immediately address any mental or physical health issues that arise. If the lateral violence is prolonged, victims should keep detailed notes of the nature of each incident, the location and time at which it happened and the names of any witnesses.

Nurses and healthcare administrators need to be informed about lateral violence in order to make concerted efforts to prevent and eliminate the practice in the workplace. With education, open communication and resources, this dangerous practice can be reduced and eliminated, making the workplace more comfortable, enjoyable and safe for all employees and patients.

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