Healthcare Workplace Violence: Where Did the Gratitude Go?

Latoya L. Stewart, MSN, RN


January 05, 2022

Recently, I sat in a meeting where nurses questioned their role in healthcare amidst the ever-changing world that COVID-19 has created. One of the questions that stood out in my mind was: "Where did the gratitude go?" One nurse mentioned that these aren't the COVID-19 patients we had in 2020. Many of those patients were legitimately grateful to be making it out the hospital alive. In those scary and constantly evolving times, patients appeared to be particularly thankful for the care they were receiving. It seems that as time went by, and depending on what news channel we watched, COVID-19 went from medical to political, with more conspiracy theories than facts.

As we moved from one COVID wave to another, it appears that the emotions of the patient population changed. Gratitude shifted to disbelief, demands, and downright physical and verbal abuse toward healthcare workers. Insider  reports that 31% of hospital nurses experienced an increase in violence since March 2021. These attacks on nurses including punches, slaps, kicks, and scratches. Bear in mind that not all attacks are physical. The verbal abuse would make the most drunken sailor blush.

The healthcare system seems to be taking blows from various angles. No doubt COVID has reduced the number of nurses willing to work at the bedside, but physical assault undoubtably takes a close second in removing nurses from the workforce. Employee injury from these assaults has left some nurses requiring physical and occupational therapy for months and even years.

The COVID patients of 2021 are frustrated, to say the least. Some have taken on political views for the cause and cure of COVID. Some have taken the vaccine and are angry that they still got COVID. Most are annoyed that a disease that initially should have been gone by a 2-week lockdown is now going into its second year. Unfortunately, it's healthcare workers that are taking the brunt of it.

We would love to yell back at those patients who tell us we're killing them but I doubt Mary Eliza Mahoney or Florence Nightingale would approve — or human resources, for that matter. Most nurses have developed a dark sense of humor as a coping mechanism for all the things we've seen over the years. Nurse meme pages on Instagram have grown tremendously over the last 2 years because we are in desperate need of an outlet. We can either laugh or cry about the traumas we've seen, but laughter is the best medicine.

But in all seriousness, the abuse that nurses currently face is directly contributing to the decrease in bedside nursing. Earlier this year, a patient was not pleased with the care he was receiving from a nurse and asked to see the manager. I walked into the room only to be greeted with racial expletives. He couldn't comprehend that someone who looked like me would be the manager. In most professional fields, this behavior would not be tolerated, but in healthcare we have to treat all patients. While we can "ask" the patient and their family to refrain from such behavior, we can't throw a patient out for treating the staff poorly.

2020 saw healthcare workers being touted as "heroes," and everyone provided us food and free merchandise — but as COVID went on, the frustration of society was taken out on us. No, we didn't cause COVID and we barely had our hands on the production of the vaccine but somehow the task of fixing things seems to be aimed at us. Most individuals don't have access to politicians and pharmaceutical companies when they're sick, so frontline staff take the hit for the woes of our COVID-ridden society. I fear that if this trend continues, healthcare as we know it will crumble.

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About Latoya L. Stewart
Latoya Stewart is Jamaica-born and New Jersey–raised, this millennial mom of two is navigating her way through middle management while quieting her middle-child syndrome. A graduate of UMDNJ and Rutgers University, she received her bachelor's in journalism, history, and nursing as well as her master's of science in nursing. Like most nurses, she believes she has a heart of gold and the mouth of a drunken sailor. Follow her on Instagram: @mindoftoya


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