“Toxic Nurse”: How To Handle Difficult Co-Workers And People


“Those days were terrible on the unit. I wasn’t such a nice person. I’m sorry I was so nasty to you!”



I bumped into an old co-worker one day. Tears, a plea of forgiveness, and an offering of chocolate followed her words. It was October, and I was shopping for Halloween candy at the local Kmart when I encountered “Nilda.”


We had worked together 15 years ago on an insanely busy poorly staffed Ortho Neuro Med Surg Unit. All nurses started with 8 patients and ended the evening with 10 if not 12. The unit consisted of patients with never ending pain, constant dressing changes and at least one code blue every night. It was my first job as new grad RN, and I was 24 years old working the 3pm to 11pm shift. It was known as “the shift from hell!”


Nilda, a senior nurse and well into her 50’s, was the “Oscar The Grouch” character of the unit. Always in a bad mood, always complaining about something. She was not particularly nice to anyone on the unit, especially me. However, she did make a ‘mean’ chicken salad.


How did I handle this ‘Toxic’ nurse at the age of 24? Well, I tried to do what everyone on the unit did, ‘ignore’ her. Pretend she was a ghost of sorts. And yes I did ‘take’ her bullying, and did not make her responsible for it. I never stood up to her.


Some nights, I would lock myself into the miniscule bathroom in the break room and cry for at least 10 minutes, sometimes longer. The bullying, the workload, and whatever else was going on in my life was all too much to handle.I grew up and an Italian family where yelling and aggression was “normal.” Dealing with Nilda was somewhat familiar.


She would be overly sarcastic, and enter the unit with a frown followed by a scowl at the number of patients we had. When she was charge nurse she would always say to me: “You are the youngest of the unit, therefore you get the hardest patients!” It was tube feed, non-mobile patient city for me!


I never complained. I never challenged Nilda. Instead, I raved about her chicken salad thinking she would perhaps treat me with some respect, which never happened.


When I bumped into her at the local Kmart 15 years later, she asked what I had been up to. I shared with her that I became a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner, and Nursing educator. That I lived a few blocks away from her, and I had been married and divorced with no children.


“I’m proud of you! You always said you wanted to be a PNP and you accomplished your goal!” She stated through her tears after her apology. In turn, she shared she was retired and her husband had passed away a few years ago.


Nilda offered me a piece of chocolate at the end of our conversation. It seemed like some sort of peace offering, a sign of needing to be forgiven. I accepted, forgave her, and asked: “Do you still make the chicken salad?” She giggled, and nodded yes and said: “You still remember that, don’t you?”


Toxic people seem to be everywhere these days. It’s difficult to work with them in the workplace. In a turbulent environment like the hospital, toxic people can be a major thorn in the team dynamic.


“Toxic behavior is the product of certain kinds of environments, notably those where productivity is the only benchmark of success or where mistrust or uncertainty permeates the atmosphere or especially in close relationships where insecurity or anxiety runs high.”

Toxic: How To Handle Difficult People Psychology Today 2017


The article Toxic, published in Psychology Today 2017, offers some life saving tips on how to work with these people:


  1. Severely limit or cut off contact with toxic people, although not always possible or practical.
  2. Minimize contact: if you work near a toxic person, ask for a desk away from them or different assignment
  3. Set firm boundaries: Assertively say no to demands that seem unreasonable without justifying yourself.
  4. Don’t explain yourself; by definition, a toxic person is someone who refuses to hear your perspective.
  5. Immunize yourself: Spot those with toxic potential and avoid them before there are any outbursts.


Great tips to keep in mind when dealing with that Toxic Nurse, even if he or she makes a “mean” chicken salad! And don’t just lock yourself in tiny bathrooms to cry. Empower yourself not to follow the status quo and tolerate toxicity in the work place.