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  • Moral Distress: The Face of Workplace Bullying
  • John S. Murray

After a 28–year long distinguished military career I accepted a research position in a tertiary academic health science center, which I considered to be my dream job following retirement. Initially I was to be responsible for one department. A second was added because of my expertise with disaster preparedness. Following my orientation, I immersed myself into my new roles recognizing that there was much to be done to achieve the goal of getting both departmental research programs up to par with the rest of the organization. In a short time, I began to recognize one of my bosses was going to be challenging to work with.

She expected that her name be included on all grant proposals and manuscripts despite making no substantial intellectual contributions to either. Additionally, she wanted unwarranted control over all research and scholarship activities I was engaged in with staff despite having no research experience. Even meeting with her to discuss my plans for the direction of research in this department, my efforts were met with argumentative and condescending behavior. She would agree to discuss my plans. When I showed up for meetings in her office she would get angry with me oftentimes for situations, which she herself created. I continued to move forward with my work feeling that how I had conducted research and scholarly work in the past, with integrity and uncompromising ethical standards, was going to be threatened. This created great moral stress for me. I felt overwhelmed, powerless and frustrated as a result of the uncertainty as to whether or not I could fulfill my responsibilities while still meeting moral obligations.

Over time, my moral compass prevented me from deviating from the principles, which helped me to build a long–standing stellar reputation as a leader in the field of pediatric nursing. However, this came with a cost. Working for this particular boss was like being on an emotional rollercoaster. One day I would feel like she was pleased with my work, but the next day my efforts could be met with anger, demeaning and dismissive behaviors. Once she praised me in front of staff for the “great” work I was doing with the evidence–based practice initiative nurse leaders. The following day she reprimanded me for not working closely with this group. She was extremely well versed at singing my praises in front of staff. Behind her closed office door was a very different experience.

I confided in some colleagues in this department how I was being treated. I quickly learned that all staff were treated in this manner by this one individual. They shared that condescending language and fear and intimidation were the norm. When [End Page 112] I asked them why no one had the awareness or courage to say this treatment was not right, they quickly shared with me that staff were deterred from speaking up for fear of greater bullying behaviors. Sadly, while everyone knew what was the right thing to do, institutional constraints made it nearly impossible to pursue the right course of action. It was readily apparent these nurses were missing advocacy. At that point, I decided it was important to seek a remedy to this problem recognizing it would be no easy task.

Progressively, my work environment with this particular boss became intolerable. Despite working relentlessly to develop a research program, unwarranted criticism, unjustified blame, exclusion, isolation, unreasonable demands and denied opportunities persisted. By this time, I was suffering from nightmares, headaches, fear, anxiety, depression, difficulty concentrating, and problems with self–esteem. I felt like my professional competence and reputation was being unjustifiably denigrated by this one individual.

In the past, I confided in trusted organizational leaders for guidance when faced with difficult situations. As such, I approached my other boss and shared what was happening. She was deeply concerned. She encouraged me to seek guidance from a safe and confidential environment where staff members can share concerns and receive assistance with how to handle these apprehensions. I had used a program like this in the past when dealing with moral distress. This experience was very helpful. In fact, I returned on multiple...


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pp. 112-114
Launched on MUSE
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