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The games people play: a pithy analysis of workplace culture

June 2, 2015

A guest blog by Liz Charalambous

Nurses! Have you ever felt that there is something happening on placement that you just can’t quite work out? It’s entirely possible that you may be a victim of the games people play.

Workplace culture can be a tricky place to navigate for everyone, not just newcomers. With this in mind I have compiled a list of toxic challenges based on years of experience and observations of workplace culture; along with a coping strategy which serves as a way of helping others to navigate the muddy waters of the workplace.

The Gordian knot: Can I get off shift early to go to a funeral/doctor appointment/dentist? The answer is yes but first you have to fulfil an impossible task. Maybe it is to give a patient with dementia a drink when they simply don’t want one. Or to do a task that has been on the ‘to do’ list for a few days such as single-handedly measure the burgeoning girth of a suspiciously sexually predatory patient, or apply cream to a patient’s genitals? The choice is theirs.

The off duty: Classic toxic management ploy. Get under your manager’s skin and enjoy a lifetime of zero social life. When the off duty comes out you see all those shifts you requested off as night duty.

Career blocker: fancy a secondment to an educator’s position? Sorry, all secondments are off due to staff shortages. How about doing a course? No, there is no funding. Career blocked.

Career ‘freezer’: This manager obviously does not like you, but for some unknown reason doesn’t want you to move on. You get offered a job in another department but a few days later the offer is mysteriously withdrawn along with a wishy-washy reason. Leaves you wondering who had a quiet word with whom….

Silent treatment: Do you feel as if you never know what’s going on even though you read all the newsletters and organisational bulletins? There is a fast flowing river of data, facts and figures but an undercurrent of important information that only reaches your ears through hidden channels. If you are not in, you’re out in the cold.

Fancy a game of leapfrog? A frustrating scenario where a younger, less experienced, less qualified and less skilled person than you gets promotion. You go from being her senior to her being in charge of you, and guess what? She doesn’t like you and is very friendly with your toxic boss…

The rules of the game: Nurses try to stick to the (often unspoken) rules of workplace culture, but beware as trouble can ensue. For example, it becomes normalised within the team to give some ‘tricky to administer’ drugs early. Play the game and you are seen as hard working and good at your job if you give them early. But beware! If management want to get rid of you, this would be a perfect opportunity for them to target you with a drug error incident form. Also, remember the off duty from earlier? Sorry, the rule is that you can’t change shifts once allocated.

Rule changer: the rules are carved in stone and there to follow…but only for some. For example, you cannot do (insert task here)…unless you are (insert name of popular member of staff here). ‘We do it this way’ but only when there is an ‘R’ in the month…and so on. Very hard to know what to do when the rules keep changing.

Spot the difference: different ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or green hair? If you speak/ look/sound different then chances are you will always be left wondering why you didn’t get offered an interview when you have all the qualifications and experience needed.

The nail that stands out gets hammered down: Won an award? Rising star? Oh dear, how very dare you? Didn’t they tell you at nursing school that it simply doesn’t pay to stand out by being good at your job? Much better and safer to aim for mediocrity and blend into the wallpaper. Keep off sister’s radar and you’ll get along fine.

The fat controller: Whatever you do is wrong, whatever decisions you make are wrong. You’re not doing it right because the fat controller is in charge and wants to boss you around. Makes you look an idiot in front of junior staff or students.

How to cope:

  1. Find a supportive workplace culture. Do agency shifts and ‘shop around’ for a nice place. Working in an area will show you what it’s like to be a part of the team. Do a few shifts in the same place before deciding.
  1. When you find your dream team, negotiate a contract that suits you. This may be difficult at first if you don’t have much experience but being up front at the beginning is better than trying to change a contract once in the job. Remember there is a global shortage of nurses and you are valuable commodity with highly attractive skills. Don’t feel guilty for having childcare/parent commitments or even a hobby that takes you away from being at work 24/7.
  1. Build a network of supportive people who have your best interests at heart; family, friends, educators and mentors. There is a lot of support online via platforms such as twitter which can help you build wider networks.
  1. Learn and educate yourself, get qualifications that will help you progress throughout your career.
  1. Find a mentor, someone who will give you bespoke careers advice designed with your preferences and talents in mind.
  1. Help others. Offering support to others can help diffuse toxic cultures. What goes around comes round. Who knows, the student nurse you were so kind to on her first placement may be your new boss one day.
  1. Don’t gossip. Keep quiet about your troubles in the workplace, only discuss with close friends who preferably work outside the organisation. Be friendly but treat work social events with caution.
  1. If things seem impossible, take a break, recharge your batteries and carry on. Plan your holidays and free time for the whole year. Remember to eat well, drink water, get enough sleep, avoid alcohol, caffeine, drugs, nicotine and be kind to yourself. Do something you enjoy, make time for exercise and being creative.
  1. Work towards being excellent at what you do. Do what’s right and stand by your convictions. Don’t let workplace culture lower your standards.
  1. If you feel bullied or harassed, keep a diary and record everything, names, dates, events. Get help from your union. Work out an exit strategy.
  1. Look for ways round a problem, when faced with a brick wall, look for a way though, or round.
  1. Don’t give up. In the words of Winston Churchill, ‘If you are going through hell, keep going.’

And finally, if you are not happy, move on. Life is too short to waste away being unhappy. The nursing profession is diverse and varied so there is no need to stay in one place for long. Good luck!

  1. Oh, I really hope these tips will help defuse (take the explosive potential out of) toxicity, rather than diffuse (spread widely).

  2. liz charalambous permalink

    Thank you Kara2008, that’s the reason I wrote it. We can only tackle workplace bullying and toxic cultures if we know what it consists of. Workplace bullying is by its very nature insidious.

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