Healthy Workforce

The Profanity Problem

When your seasoned nurses' language is a little too salty

You’re the charge nurse on a busy labor & delivery unit. Although you like your role, you cringe any time Sandra is working. Sandra is quick to anger if she doesn’t like her assignment, and when she gets angry, she lets loose with a choice string of words you can’t say on TV.

Although you try to give her “good” assignments, today is a challenging day with many difficult patients, and Sandra doesn’t like it one bit. As you’re standing in the middle of the nurses’ station, she loudly declares, “I’m not taking this f***ing assignment!!” and stomps off down the hallway.

You wouldn’t expect nurses to use such vulgar language while on the job, but they do. In fact, profanity in the workplace is one of the most common complaints we hear from our healthcare clients at the Healthy Workforce Institute.

EVERYONE DOES IT!

In organizations we work with, we’re told that both clinical and nonclinical staff curse on the job — some of them like sailors! Sometimes, the very same leaders who complain about their employees’ potty mouths also admit (reluctantly) that they swear too.

One of the medical directors we work with admitted that any time she gets frustrated, she’ll drop a “m*****f***” (fill in the blanks) right in front of her team. She’s apparently well-known among her staff for blurting out “What the f***?” any time something doesn’t go quite right.

The medical director’s profanity isn’t directed at anyone else — it’s a reflexive stress response that’s expressed in a barrage of “bleeps.” However, some examples are more personal.

In one case, a new nurse asked an experienced coworker for the pharmacy phone number. The coworker snapped, “It’s 1-800-GO-F***-yourself, honey,” and then laughed.

Nursing Education

Workplace profanity can also turn threatening. Back when I was a manager, one of my nursing assistants shouted at my nurse, “My boyfriend knows what shuttle you take and will be waiting to beat the s*** out of you!” She repeated this three times in our patient care hallways.

Yep, salty language in the healthcare workplace is a problem. It’s also a problem with two distinct faces: cursing in anger and cursing in casual conversation.

TEMPER, TEMPER!

There are probably few nurses who haven’t at least occasionally resorted to foul language. Unfortunately, this can escalate a conflict and create lasting resentment.

Worse, cursing in anger becomes a problem for anyone within earshot, especially patients. Overhearing heated arguments punctuated with threatening profanity triggers a fight-or-flight response. Such stress may be even worse for patients, who don’t have the option to retreat from the argument, and who are depending on the staff to keep level heads. This can definitely affect clinical outcomes.

Cursing in anger can become a serious organizational problem. If leaders look the other way, it could be considered creating a hostile work environment, which is bad news for everyone.

WATCH YOUR MOUTH!

Some people curse all the time. Whether in casual chit-chat with coworkers, during shift report or telling a funny story about their kids in the breakroom, everything that comes out of their mouths is punctuated with four-letter words.

Why is cursing in casual conversations a problem? If nobody is angry or threatening, what’s the harm? Well, for one thing, not everyone may know the curser well enough to realize that’s just how they talk. A new nurse might assume the profanity is directed at them, while a patient may think the swearing means something to worry about. (Imagine how a patient might react if they heard their nurse mutter “Ah, f***” while looking at their monitors!)

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Even if everyone within earshot is familiar with a staff member’s foul mouth, I guarantee you that someone in the room is offended, although they might be reluctant to speak up. Constantly having to bite your tongue when a colleague is being inappropriate and unprofessional doesn’t make it any easier for nurses to work together.

NSFW NO MORE

If profanity has never been addressed in your department, you can’t just gather everyone together and say, “That’s it. From now on, no cursing.” (All that’s likely to do is make the habitual cursers exclaim “S***!” every time they catch themselves swearing!) Instead, you must ease into a profanity-free workplace.

Start by focusing on cursing in anger, which poses a real risk to patients and employees within earshot. Let your team know that it is unacceptable — no matter what — and that you want everyone to intervene if they hear it by saying, “You’re cursing and yelling in a patient care area, and you need to stop right now.”

Once you’ve addressed the angry cursing, let your team know you’re all going to work on reducing profanity in casual workplace conversations, starting with patient care areas and centralized workstations. Eventually, you can focus on toning down the language in breakrooms. After all, a “breakroom” means … a break.

Cleaning up everyone’s language will take some time, so make it fun if you can. One of our consulting clients got together with their team and decided to add a “swear jar.” Any time someone cursed, they had to put a dollar in the jar ($5 for the second infraction of the day). Money in the swear jar was used to buy goodies for the breakroom.

If you adopt strategies like these, before you know it, the new norm in your workplace will be collegial professional conversations, not foul-mouthed tirades — and everyone will benefit.


Renee Thompson, RN, DNP, CMSRN, is the CEO and founder of the Healthy Workforce Institute (healthyworkforceinstitute.com). Reach her at .


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