Monday, May 21, 2018

Build a Firewall Against Negative Nurse Syndrome

As nurses, we see the good, the bad, and the ugly of life, society, and humanity. In the course of our nursing careers, we can encounter belligerent patients, impatient families, nurse bullies, arrogant surgeons, uncaring managers, and generally miserable nurse peers. So how do we stay positive amidst such negativity? How do we protect ourselves against those who would prefer to drag us down with them -- including other nurses?

Watch your mouth -- words matter
Photo by Makhmutova Dina on Unsplash

Negative Nurse Syndrome

Negative Nurse Syndrome (NNS) is a widespread condition that infects a large number of nurses and nursing students. No matter how popular and potentially satisfying a nursing career may seem, there's plenty of stress, negativity, moaning, groaning, and dissatisfaction to go around. In fact, even the most earnest and well-meaning new grad can quickly find herself face to face with her own growing sense of jadedness if she's not careful to guard against it. After all, if you're surrounded by a bunch of Negative Nancys and Davey Downers, their pessimism will find you by nurse osmosis.

Recent research shows that we humans are actually wired to be negative, and we have to work hard to overcome the innate negative bias that comes from our reptilian brain's focus on survival. And nurses are no exception.

We're all slightly different in terms of our individual set point for relative happiness or unhappiness, but the fact remains that we're pretty good at worrying, complaining, and otherwise feeling anxious and preoccupied with the things we can't control. This is where Negative Nurse Syndrome holds sway.

Build a Firewall

It only takes one negative person who complains and grumbles out loud to cast a pall over the rest of the workplace. Have you ever experienced how one person's drama or trauma can suck the air right out of a room? This is what can happen in a hospital unit, home health agency, or other workplace where nurses congregate and chronic complainers go unchallenged.

While you don't necessarily want to become alienated from your colleagues, there are times when, in the spirit of self-preservation, you just have to remove yourself from the sources of negativity within your workplace. If there's one nurse who dominates the lunch room with nothing but complaints, you find another place to eat lunch. If there are several nurses who regularly engage in gossip in the break room, you don't spend time around them.

Your job is to keep a firewall between yourself and those who would drag you down, and this is a survival strategy for those of us who are highly susceptible to the negativity of others.

Your firewall is of a spiritual and psychoemotional nature, erected to protect you from exposure to influences you'd rather avoid. After all, how can your career move forward with joy when you're being dragged through the mud? Your last defenses against the negative forces around you are your dedication to your work, your desire to live a good life, and your personal commitment to being steeped in positivity and optimism as often as you can manage.

Blinders and Ear Plugs

When faced with negative colleagues, you have the option of donning your metaphorical blinders and ear plugs and ignoring whatever is happening around you. Ignorance can sometimes be bliss. However, self-protection notwithstanding, there are times when your blinders and ear plugs have to come off, and here are some examples:

You walk into the break room and several nurses are gossiping about a colleague who isn't present. They're laughing, making derogatory comments, and being altogether unkind. Only you can know if it's safe to do so, but this situation may call for you to speak up and say, "I think Melissa is a great nurse. If you have something to say, why not talk to her directly?" This can be a risky strategy, especially if the gossipers are also the resident bullies on the floor -- do you really want to bring their wrath down upon you, too? It can be a tough decision, even when you know that standing up for Melissa is the right thing to do.

You can also do as described in this article at, using the nine prescribed magic words:
Imagine you’re in a meeting and you hear someone make one of those blanket negative statements (e.g. “that will never work,” “this company doesn’t care about its employees,” “we’re just gonna get trounced by the competition,” etc.). The 9 words you’re going to say are “I’m curious, what evidence brought you to that conclusion? 
What happens next follows a pretty typical pattern. The negative person might say, “Oh, you know, we’ve just never been good at implementing new technology” or they might say, “Well, it’s just obvious.” But regardless of what they say exactly, they typically evidence that there’s not a lot of factual basis for their negativity.
Another situation involving speaking up would be where you directly observe a colleague (or group of colleagues) being outwardly cruel to one of your coworkers. It's one thing to intervene when people are gossiping about someone who isn't present -- it's another thing entirely when a nurse is being directly bullied in front of her peers or patients. Naming the behavior and calling it what it is may be your best bet to stopping bullies in their tracks, although documentation and the written corroboration of witnesses are also key.

Blinders and ear plugs are fine when we simply want to be removed from the negativity of our colleagues' complaints and laments, but we all need to step forward and draw the line when actual bullying, discrimination, or harassment is taking place.

Adhere to Your Inner Calling

You didn't choose nursing as a calling and a profession in order to listen to your fellow nurses' complaints and curses. You chose nursing for your own personal reasons, most likely related to your desire to be of service and to touch the lives of fellow humans in need.

Negative Nurse Syndrome can strike any nurse at any time -- nursing is stressful by nature and it's easy to understand why a nurse might become morose and less than compassionate. Patients and their families can be so difficult, and colleagues can be less than perfect. Meanwhile, the healthcare system itself can easily lead us to feel significantly jaded. Remaining positive amidst these powerful influences can seem like a superhuman feat.

You could picture a nurse angel and a nurse devil on either of your shoulders. These two figures represent competing forces inside of you -- that of the naive, optimistic new grad ready for anything, and that of the seasoned nurse who's already exhausted from the combined burdens of patients, colleagues, and unceasing work.

In the end, remember that you poured your blood, sweat, tears, time, and money into becoming a nurse, and you need to ask yourself how much of your original dream you're actually willing to sacrifice on the altar of negativity. This is a question of mindset and of your ability and willingness to say, "To hell with the negativity, I'm going to focus on why I chose this profession in the first place". Talking back to the negativity with positive statements and beliefs is a strong antidote.

Nurse, it's ultimately your decision. Negative Nurse Syndrome can be a tough thing to overcome, but overcome it you must. Burnout and unhappiness are just two of the symptoms that you risk exhibiting if you allow Negative Nurse Syndrome to take hold, so fight the good fight in your own psyche and push back against the voices of dread.

Build your firewall, inoculate yourself against negativity, and recommit to the career you envisioned. The journey is of your own making, and the choice is always yours.


Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BC, is the Board Certified Nurse Coach behind and the well-known nursing blog, Digital Doorway. Please visit his online platforms and reach out for his support when you need it most.

Keith is the host of The Nurse Keith Show, his solo podcast focused on career advice and inspiration for nurses. From 2012 until its sunset in 2017, Keith co-hosted RNFMRadio, a groundbreaking nursing podcast.

As of May of 2018, Keith is the host of Mastering Nursing, an interview-style podcast showcasing inspiring, forward-thinking nurse thought leaders and innovators. 

A widely published nurse writer, Keith is the author of Savvy Networking For Nurses: Getting Connected and Staying Connected in the 21st Century and Aspire to be Inspired: Creating a Nursing Career That Matters. He has contributed chapters to a number of books related to the  nursing profession. Keith has written for,, MultiBriefs News Service, LPNtoBSNOnline, StaffGarden, AusMed, American Sentinel University, the ANA blog,, American Nurse Today, Working Nurse Magazine, and other online and print publications.

Mr. Carlson brings a plethora of experience as a nurse thought leader, keynote speaker, online nurse personality, social media influencer, podcaster, holistic career coach, writer, and well-known nurse entrepreneur. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico with his lovely and talented wife, Mary Rives, and his adorable and remarkably intelligent cat, George.

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