The Nature of Verbal Abuse Experienced by Australian Nurses: Findings from an Observational Study

Monday, 30 July 2012

Marie Hutchinson, RN, RM, PhD
School of Health and Human Sciences, Southern Cross University, Lismore, Australia
Debra Jackson, RN, PhD
Faculty of Nursing, Midwifery and Health, University of Technology Sydney, Sydney, Australia
Lesley M. Wilkes, PhD, MHPEd, GradDipED, CM, RN
Clinical Nursing Research Unit, Nepean Blue Mountains Local Health Area/University of Western Sydney, Penrith, Australia
Lauretta Luck, RN, BA, MA, PhD
School of Nursing and Midwifery, University of Western Sydney, Penrith South DC NSW, Australia

Learning Objective 1: The learner will understand the nature of verbal abuse experienced by nurses

Learning Objective 2: The learner will recognise the relationship between the image of nursing, gender stereotypes and nurse exposure to violence.


This paper reports on the nature of verbal abuse experienced by Australian nurses in their everyday working lives. The presentation will provide insight into the density and nature of verbal abuse, and in particular, the gendered and sexualised nature of much of this abuse. The target audience for the presentation will be clinicians, nurse researchers and nurse managers.


A mixed methods non-participatory observational study resulted in 1150 hours of observation, 220 patients displaying cues for violence and 210 notes for violence and abuse. Content analysis was performed on the observation notes to reveal the categories: discourse of gendered violence that is largely sexual; demeaning insults, ridicule and unreasonable demands; and, hostility, threats and physical violence


 Observations of nurse-patient interactions identified a mosaic of abuse and violence. The verbal abuse observed was highly offensive, demeaning and largely sexual. It escalated to include acts of hostility, threats and physical violence which were enacted to gain power over, humiliate or dominate - forming a dense pattern of abuse. 


Our findings suggest that nurses are exposed to intolerable and potentially damaging levels of verbal abuse and violence in their everyday work. The potential for the effects of verbal abuse is magnified by its co-occurrence with other abusive acts over time. The offensive nature of the abuse experienced suggests that the personal safety of nurses is placed at risk through widely held stereotypes and poor public images of nurses.