In an article published April 14, 2017, Kathleen Colduvell, RN, BSN, BA, CBC, a staff writer for Nurse.org, referred to an article from 1986 in which nursing professor Judith Meissner coined the phrase “Nurses eat their young” as a call to action for nurses to stop ripping apart inexperienced coworkers.1
I was in my intro to nursing class when I first heard the saying, “Nurses eat their young.” Just the image it elicited made me cringe. I had to stop for a second to figure out exactly what it meant in the realm of nursing. I thought of how some animals eat their young. But when animals eat their young, they do so because of scarce resources or there is something wrong with the offspring and it is unlikely to survive. How does the saying apply to nurses? The new-to-practice nurse/novice is inexperienced and may not be carrying his/her weight, which stretches the resources of other nurses. For experienced nurses, the lack of skills and reliability the novice demonstrates can lead to a level of frustration. This can translate into judgement about whether he/she can succeed as a nurse.
The goal of this column isn’t to identify or describe the sociological phenomenon of nurses eating their young, but rather to address the areas that contribute to nurses’ challenges in communication. Often, when I think of communication challenges in nursing, I focus on the tough interactions with complex patients, their families, or other members of the healthcare team. Yet what of those interactions with other nurses, nurses with more experience who are purposely difficult? In a so called “caring” profession, at a time where we focus on self-care in the work environment, why do we fail to care for those who are, professionally speaking, weaker?
Articles about nurses eating their young focused on why it occurs and the bullying aspect of the phenomena. Most included what might essentially be a call to arms — expert nurses needed to stop other nurses from bullying novice nurses, and in turn, novice nurses needed to stand up for themselves. The general theme was to encourage nurses to mentor the novice nurse, and to remember the times they were bullied. I have a clear memory of being a new grad and a charge nurse reducing me to tears over a relatively minor error. Right then and there I decided I would never make a new nurse feel the way I’d been made to feel. But there are others who look at it as more of a rite of passage, that strength is drawn from adversity. That the only way we make strong nurses with strong skills is to push them. The buck up theory.
And yet …
In my role as a symptom nurse working with the Palliative Care Team my work day is spent moving between different nursing units. I work in a community hospital which means our oncology patients may be anywhere from ICU to the cardiac unit. As such, I interact with nurses from other specialties. I am struck by how often I will be asked a question, whispered to me as if it were a secret.