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Debate over idea that ‘nurses eat their young’

The idea that “nurses eat their young” was debated by senior nurses at the Nursing Times Workforce Summit 2023 today.

The well-known idiom refers to nurses bullying or mistreating less experienced colleagues including newly registered nurses and students.

“For me that quote, that idea that nurses eat their young, it becomes a sort of scapegoat, it becomes a blaming”

Jane Ball

Deputy chief nursing officer for NHS England, Professor Mark Radford, brought up the phrase during his keynote address which opened the conference this morning.

Professor Radford, whose speech was focused on the need to improve the perceptions of nursing, said: “I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again…nursing eats its young.

“We are a profession that sometimes [doesn’t look] after its own. And that is ubiquitous across every setting we find and experience.

“So I think there is a real mirror, actually, to hold up to ourselves as a profession about, what can we get right about retention?”

Nurses eating their young was then addressed again in a following panel session that was exploring the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan.

Asked about her thoughts on this and other culture issues in nursing, Liz Fenton, deputy chief nurse at Health Education England, which is merging with NHS England, said that “retention starts with our students”.

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“Many of us in this room are providers of places of learning for our student nurses and midwives,” she added.

Liz Fenton

“And we know that how they’re treated as a student makes a huge impact on their decisions around where they want to work later.

“And talking to students, what they ask for is actually really very simple. They want to be welcomed into a team, they want to be called by their name, not called ‘the student’.”

She added: “The way students describe how they would like to be treated is actually no different to the way any of us would want to be treated.”

However, the idea of nurses eating their young was challenged by Professor Jane Ball, who was sitting on the panel with Ms Fenton.

Professor Ball, professor of nursing workforce and policy at the University of Southampton, said pressures in the system affected nurses’ behaviour and that this needed to be recognised.

“Just on that ‘nurses eating their own young’… I really think we have to challenge that, we’ve got used to saying it and I think we have to challenge it,” said Professor Ball.

“Because for me that quote, that idea that nurses eat their young, it becomes a sort of scapegoat, it becomes a blaming.

“And actually, nurses and senior nurses are under extraordinary pressure, and if sometimes that pressure means that you haven’t been able to treat your staff well, or you have become burnt out and no longer feel able to be compassionate to your colleagues or your patients, that is a system problem.”

Jane Ball. Credit: University of Southampton

She added that as a society, “we’ve not been investing in the value of nursing”, and this was a reason for the nursing workforce shortages in the UK and some of the connected issues related to culture.

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“So, I really think we have to stop beating up nurses about problems in nursing,” said Professor Ball.

“Not asking nurses to be more resilient because the pressures are greater; not saying, ‘Oh, you experienced nurses eat your own young’.

“You have to challenge what are system problems; and the workforce plan does that in a way, it does tackle that system problem of not having enough [nurses].”

The in-person Nursing Times Workforce Summit is being held today in London and follows a virtual version last week.

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