A study of cyberbullying in New Zealand nursing has found it impacts not only on the nurse victims themselves but also on the reputation of their organisations.
Natalia D’Souza, a Massey PhD student, held in-depth interviews with eight nurses who reported experiencing cyberbullying – harassment or other unwanted bullying behaviour via electronic means from texts to social media posts – from both within and outside their workplace. As a result, she has made a number of recommendations for nurse employers, including incorporating cyber ill-treatment and bullying into existing bullying guidelines, and having clear mechanisms for reporting and investigating digital evidence of bullying.
D’Souza said while five of the eight nurses she spoke to experienced cyberbullying from within their organisation – from colleagues or workplace superiors – three reported cases of bullying were from outside the organisation, including in two cases the parents of patients and, in the third case, the defamatory bullying of a nurse academic.
She said the research showed that, particularly in small communities, public incidents of cyberbullying – via social media or public blogs – had the potential to damage not only the reputation of the nurse target but also the organisations they work for.
The cases of external bullying included defamatory Facebook posts involving false sexual allegations made by the mother of a patient against the nurse victim. Another patient’s mother had bullied a nurse by leaving hostile and aggressive voicemail messages and sending hostile texts. The third external case involved a defamatory and anonymous blog post that was suspected to have been made by the student of a nurse academic. D’Souza said in least two of these cases, cyberbullying not only impacted upon the targeted individuals, “but also created negative publicity for the organisations involved, with the potential to hamper the provision of health services, particularly within small communities”.
She said bullying behaviour via social media or blogs or email chains not only increased the audience but were also used to damage social and professional networks and isolate the bullying target. “In one case of anonymous cyberbullying, this not only increased the threat level for the target, but also prevented effective resolution by the organisation.”
D’Souza said her study participants also indicated that two key features of cyberbullying were generally perceived to be more harmful: cyberbullying that resulted in a blurring of home/work boundaries and/or cyberbullying that was played out in a relatively public domain.
She said unlike face-to-face encounters, cyberbullying can persist beyond the physical workplace and working hours as digital devices provide continued access to targets.
“In this way, aggressive or unwanted cyber behaviours are not only repeated, but can transcend traditional safety strategies such as the use of security staff, being removed from the premises, and trespass notices,” said D’Souza. “More importantly, at present there is little that organisations can do to successfully resolve such incidents, as workplace cyberbullying currently remains beyond the scope of current organisational, industry, and national-level policy. In fact, many cases in this study often lacked a clear resolution to the cyberbullying and targets were often left feeling uncertain and anxious about future incidents.”
D’Souza said for most of the eight bullying targets the cyberbullying was part of a broader pattern of bullying behaviour within the workplace, including “unwarranted disciplinary and excessive performance management”, undermining comments, being ignored or excluded, plus offensive and aggressive emails and texts.
All eight participants indicated that other nurses within their organisation had also been cyberbullied. Many bullying targets had not reported the cyberbullying, said D’Souza, as they believed they could or should deal with it on their own, but only in one case had the cyberbullying been successfully resolved by the target’s own efforts. In a couple of cases the targets believed the ‘bully’ was supported by upper management and this had discouraged them from reporting the bullying.
A few participants had also noted that underfunding in healthcare meant that nurses were being blamed for system-level issues, such as shortages of staff, increased workloads, time constraints and insufficient resources. “Such environments largely support the occurrence and tolerance of workplace bullying.”
D’Souza concluded that cyberbullying in nursing is a “growing workplace psychosocial safety hazard that needs to be addressed immediately”.
- Increased education around the nature of cyberbullying as well as potential avenues for seeking help.
- Incorporating forms of cyber ill-treatment and cyberbullying into existing workplace bullying and harassment guidelines, as well as clearly indicating reporting mechanisms and strategies that make use of digital evidence.
- Detailed expansion of workplace cyberbullying (particularly from external sources) within the existing guidelines around social media and electronic communication in nursing.
- Collaboration from potential intervention agencies (such as legal consultants, the police, and NetSafe) at a national level towards a protective agenda and set of guidelines, enabling organisations to proactively prevent the occurrence of workplace cyberbullying.
DEFINITION of WORKPLACE CYBERBULLYING
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.
- Netsafe website has a page dedicated to advice on online bullying and harassment www.netsafe.org.nz or you can email them directly for advice at: email@example.com or phone them on 0508 638 723
- New Zealand Nurses Organisation workplace bullying information and guidance:www.nzno.org.nz/bullyfree
- WorkSafe New Zealand bullying prevention tools:
- Lifeline Aotearoa: 24-hour telephone counselling 0800 543 354
Social media and nursing resources
- 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.
*Resources section added November 9 2017