Career advice

How to cope with rude or hostile colleagues

Working relationships in healthcare settings are not immune to day-to-day conflicts. But there are strategies to take the heat out of tense situations.

Working relationships in healthcare settings are not immune to day-to-day conflicts. But there are strategies to take the heat out of tense situations.

All staff have a responsibility to promote collaborative working. Picture: iStock

Nursing in close proximity for long shifts means some tension in a ward is normal. However, sustained friction can be damaging to team morale and patient care and so must be addressed. 

Conflict resolution

Most nurses enjoy humour, but there is a fine line between jokes that help relieve stress and cutting remarks that erode self-esteem and confidence.

Though ward managers have a pivotal role in managing overall dynamics, every staff member has a responsibility to promote collaborative working, and this involves addressing challenging relationships.

Recent research from the University of East Anglia and the University of Western Ontario in Canada found nurses with a strong sense of self belief, particularly in their ability to cope with volatile working relationships, were not as susceptible to negative effects such as emotional exhaustion, cynicism and more significant mental health issues.

You can’t change another person’s behaviour, but you can change how you react to it and how you feel about yourself. So it is important that you build up your emotional resilience and ability to cope with whatever comes your way.

Dealing with challenging behaviour 
  • Don’t let things bottle up: aim to manage conflict as soon as you can. If you feel able, speak to the relevant colleague directly. Make sure you find a quiet space away from patients and relatives, ideally where you can both sit down. Though you may feel emotional, try not to be defensive or accusatory and take responsibility for your feelings. For example, ‘I felt upset when you said…’ instead of ‘you made me upset’.
  • Avoid being reactive: remove yourself from any heated situations with colleagues, even if this means taking an impromptu toilet break. Unlike relationships with friends and family where it may be the norm to let off steam, at work you have a professional duty to act with integrity and treat other nurses fairly.
  • Use specific examples: often it helps to keep a note of what has happened as well as your reaction to it. This helps you to stick to the facts and provide a useful timeline.
  • Try mediation: if you don’t feel up to addressing the issue on your own, do not beat yourself up. Your employer has a duty towards your well-being, so speak to your line manager or another senior colleague. Most workplaces will have systems in place for informal and formal mediation, where issues can be discussed in a safe and impartial environment. 
  • Do not tolerate bullying: if you feel you are being bullied or harassed, seek confidential support and advice from your line manager or HR department.


Mandy Day-Calder is a freelance health writer and life/health coach

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