‘Intolerable’ bullying drives nurse out

December 1, 2021

Auckland nurse Petra Aukino has quit the profession after bullying early in her career ‘shattered’ her confidence. She shares her story here.

I pursued nursing as I had a desire to relieve others’ suffering and provide a caring and safe environment for people dealing with health problems.

Working in the nursing sector for nearly 20 years has provided me with both positive and negative experiences. I met some wonderful nurses and have made lifelong friends – but also experienced and witnessed negativity which left me feeling disenchanted.

An older student, I graduated in my 40s. My first placement post-registration, in 2002, was in a paediatric setting. I was very eager to work in this area as I loved children.

But early on, I heard a couple of experienced nurses make derogatory remarks about one of the young patients at handover, stating that they did not want to be allocated to the care of that baby as he was too ugly.

These comments were made on more than one occasion. I was horrified but rather than raise it with the nurse manager, I decided to ask them directly if they were aware of how upsetting their remarks were. They both told me to “f…k off” and claimed they were using their coping mechanisms before walking away.

From that day on I was ignored and ostracised by these two nurses.

My next hospital placement was in an adult surgical setting where I, along with several others, had several bad experiences involving a couple of senior nurses who contributed to a very negative work environment.

Sarcastic comments

They would not even attempt to downplay some of their sarcastic comments directed to some of the junior nurses, in particular agency staff, as well as making fun of them behind their backs.

Once, as I was doing a verbal handover, one of the senior nurses responded by rolling her eyes, commenting “la la la la”, then walking away before I had finished.

She then insisted I do a blood transfusion for a patient and when I tried to explain I was not yet signed off for my blood transfusion competency, she glared at me, saying “for f…k’s sake”, before walking away.

When handing over to me on her way to lunch, she did not mention that one of her patients (a very large woman) had been sitting in her wet gown for over an hour, despite asking for help. The patient was very distressed and upset. I asked another nurse to assist me with a complete change and advised the senior nurse when she returned of what had been needed. She replied, “I knew that.”

Patient abuse

Another time, the other senior nurse had been caring for an elderly Japanese gentleman with limited English.

She tried to explain to him how to record his own fluid balance chart by documenting his intake, but when he did not understand, she shouted at him to “go back to where the bloody hell he came from”. Shocked, I checked if the patient was okay. Such abuse – while not directed at me on this occasion – added to the overall toxic environment.

On an afternoon shift, I was looking after a very sick 16-year-old boy who had been admitted post-appendicitis surgery. He was very scared and his mother, who was also a nurse, stayed at his bedside most of the shift.

She was very worried for him and asked if she could stay a little bit longer after visiting hours. I said that was okay with me, but after my shift ended at 11pm, the next nurse might not allow it. She understood this.

Towards the end of my shift, I handed over to the same senior nurse.

After checking on the patients, she approached me as I was writing up my clinical notes and loudly asked what the hell was I thinking and how dare I allow the mother to stay with her son. This was in front of all the other staff.

Shocked, I did not respond immediately, but finally summoned the courage to suggest if she had something to say to me, we could go into office for some privacy. However, she simply walked off.

On my next shift, the mother thanked me for being kind and said her experience with the senior nurse had been terrible and she had never been spoken to so rudely and aggressively.

Another time, a male patient in a four-bed room, took off his pyjamas saying he preferred to sleep just in his underpants.

Later, investigating noises from the room, I found the senior nurse and another nurse holding him down and forcing on his pyjamas. They asked for my help but I did not want to participate. The two left and I comforted the patient who was upset and asked what he had done wrong. This ward was diabolical. In my 14 months there, I witnessed the pair of senior nurses put down bureau staff, other nursing staff and even cleaning staff.

I am aware that a few of my colleagues have been reduced to tears by their actions. Staff turnover was high, as many transferred or quit the profession altogether.

The charge nurse manager must have been aware of what was happening on her ward – if not, she should have been. Either way, she ignored the behaviour of the two senior nurses.

‘Too nice’

At my assessment, she criticised me for being “too nice” and not assertive enough to get patients to do what they needed to do. I responded by saying one can be nice and assertive at the same time for in my experience people respond much better to a nurse who was caring and took time to explain things, rather than being harsh. This did not go down well and she said I was not accepting of her feedback.

Work life ‘intolerable’

My working life became increasingly intolerable. They double-checked my work constantly and my questions were often greeted with eye-rolling.

I lost total confidence in myself and every day became a challenge. I felt I had no choice but to leave the ward, as I no longer felt safe.

I no longer had confidence in my ability and decision-making, as I was feeling anxious, stressed and disrespected.

I started making mistakes and became frightened of making a serious one. I could not live with that fear of harming someone and quit the ward, and nursing.

But I missed nursing and after four years I completed a return to nursing paper and worked in a range of nursing roles over the next six years in the community – but never again on a ward.

Each time I entered into a new role I did try to feel confident but I am sure I was experiencing post-trauma from the early days, which made it extremely challenging.

In 2018, I decided to leave the profession, for good.

See also: Bullying – what should you do?


If you’re concerned about bullying, please contact NZNO’s member support centre on 0800 28 38 48 or nurses@nzno.org.nz.