Cyberbullying in nursing: what is happening?

June 2016 Vol. 16 (3)

Workplace cyberbullying is an insidious form of bullying that can stalk you from the hospital to home via the phone in your pocket. Researcher Natalia D’Souza wants to talk to nurses who may have experienced unwanted aggressive behaviour via any form of electronic media from text and email to social media and instant messaging. FIONA CASSIE reports.

Natalia DSouzaSending constant texts telling someone to shape up as their work isn’t up to scratch. Or being pointedly, and persistently, excluded from social media groups or online work forums.

These are examples of the 21st century cyberbullying that may be underway in health workplaces. Massey University’s Healthy Workplaces researcher Natalia D’Souza is keen to talk to nurses and doctors (including students) who believe they have experienced workplace cyberbullying, with the aim of contributing towards policies to manage and prevent it.

The research project has grown out of a 2009 Massey study into bullying in the hospitality, health and education sectors, which indicated high levels of workplace bullying across all parts of the health sector, but particular problems within nursing; with reports of bullying from manager to nurse and doctor to nurse, as well as peer-to-peer bullying. That study was followed up by further research by Dr Kate Blackwood, who interviewed 34 nurses who had been targets of general workplace bullying and found only one case was actually resolved.

D’Souza says some aspects of cyberbullying make it more damaging than traditional face-to-face bullying. These include the fact that the internet ‘never forgets’ and the fact that it can cross work/home boundaries.

“With face-to-face bullying at work, when you go home you have time to recharge, but cyberbullying follows you home.”

There’s also the growth of apps and social media platforms allowing people to bully anonymously “which makes it a little bit more threatening and dangerous”.

D’Souza says the first reports of what was initially called ‘e-harassment’ appear in the research literature around 2004. It is now more commonly called cyberbullying (see definition in sidebar).

“A lot of the time people see cyberbullying as quite juvenile – it just happens with school children,” says D’Souza. Often people associate the term with adolescents using texting or social media to pick on a schoolmate with sometimes tragic results, but a recent Australian study of miners estimates the rate of cyberbullying in the mining industry to be 10 per cent, “which is a little alarming”.

In the lead-up to seeking research participants, D’Souza explored concepts of cyberbullying with 15 nurses and nursing students, showing them some scenarios and discussing whether they believed the situations involved cyberbullying.

The examples included a worker struggled to get on with her manager and then receiving mean text messages from the manager about her work quality outside of working hours, which all nurses spoken to agreed was a case of workplace cyberbullying

Another less clear-cut scenario was two co-workers who had a disagreement and in the heat of the moment one anonymously posted on social media an embarrassing picture of the other worker taken at a recent staff function. The photo was shared by other staff members before being taken down the following day. D’Souza says this scenario did not fit with the current academic definition of cyberbullying, as it was a one-off incident, but she says nearly all the nurses still saw it as bullying.

“Something on social media can be shared so fast and by so many people they say it doesn’t matter that it was only a one-off happening as there is a long-lasting impact.”

She says the nurses also were less concerned about whether the perpetrator intended to cause harm or not because the harm occurred regardless.

D’Souza says she is aware that nursing has developed strong social media policies and was not aware of any similar policies in the medical profession. She is also interested to see whether the new generation of nurses’ reliance on social media and smartphones has the potential to bring cyberbullying from the playground into the workplace with them.

Nurses or nursing students who are willing to share their experiences of workplace cyberbullying in a research interview can contact Natalia D’Souza on N.J.D’ or phone 021 175 7444.

 Cyber bullying



Cyberbullying involves unwanted aggressive behaviours that may harm, threaten, demoralise or embarrass the person on the receiving end. This can occur through a range of electronic media including text and instant messages, emails, social media, blogs and public web forums. Workplace cyberbullying can occur outside of the workplace and after hours.



  • Nursing Council of New Zealand
    A nurse’s guide to safe use of social media and electronic forms of communication (2013).
  • Social media and the nursing profession: 
    a guide to online professionalism for nurses and nursing students (2012). New Zealand Nursing Organisation, NZNO National Student Unit and the Nurse Educators in the Tertiary Sector.
  • Harmful Digital Communications Act (2015) 
    Key points about Act answered on Ministry of Justice site
  • Lifeline Aotearoa
    24-hour telephone counselling
    0800 543 354

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