Nurse jumping to death sheds light on ‘burn’ culture

Marian Chu  Published 2018.02.20  18:03  Updated 2018.02.20 18:03


The notorious "burn-to-ashes" culture embedded in Korea's nursing community has once again come to the surface, following reports of a nurse who committed suicide last week.

The Songpa Police Station in southern Seoul said an unidentified nurse at Asan Medical Center killed herself Thursday leading many to speculate the abusive “burn” work culture to be the cause.

A nurse’s suicide has brought the “burn” culture in the nursing community to the center stage recently.

A man who claimed to be her boyfriend said that harassment and bullying drove her to suicide. According to news reports, the nurse made a significant mistake during a surgical procedure that required the patient to get the surgery redone. The hospital said that the surgical team was worried about facing legal action.

AMC has denied any form of harassment or abnormally violent behavior involved in the case in its internal investigation but noted that the nurse had been in meetings with her superiors over the surgery.

But the hospital’s report drew fire from medical associations, unions, and citizens alike. On Sunday, a citizen made an online petition to the Blue House to uncover the exact cause of the nurse’s death, gaining more than 13,000 signatures within one day.

And the Korean Health and Medical Workers’ Union Monday called for a reform of the “taeum” (burn) culture, pointing out that the nurse’s suicide illuminated the reality for many nurses who are on the verge of exploding.

Related : 'To leave or not to leave'

The burn-to-ash or “taeum” culture in Korea’s nursing community arises from intolerance to any mistakes made in the workplace – big or small. Newcomers are not welcome. Mistakes are far less so.

Among nurses, burn culture is deeply entrenched in the workplace. According to a human rights survey Tuesday, seven out of 10 nurses said they experienced human rights violations, accounting for 70 percent of the total nurses surveyed. Also, 40 percent said they suffered harassment from peers.

“I think that around 80 percent of the burn culture can be attributed to a lack of workforce. It’s too much work for one person to handle and, in the medical field, mistakes can kill life,” said a nurse who declined to be named. “The remaining 20 percent comes from human trash or those who are really, really bad at their jobs.”

The more experienced nurses commonly referred to as “the old” harass newcomers who make mistakes verbally -- and physically -- passing on their work to new nurses and burdening them with more work. New nurses often cite the unnecessary, and often cruel, methods older nurses use to train them.

A nurse surnamed Kim who works at one of the so-called “Big Five” hospitals said she - like the thousands of nurses who enter the nursing profession - confronted the notorious burn culture when she started working.

Kim says she saw an older nurse pour a bottle of IV fluid on a nurse’s head after she hung it up incorrectly. She was then taken to an empty room, and thrown insults like, “Did you know you can use your brain to think?”

“It’s primarily military culture in a female-only society,” Kim said. “The old nurses will taunt the new nurses by saying things like, ‘What’s wrong with your makeup’ and ‘Why are you looking at me like that?’ Retaliation? Not even possible. You’ll be branded as being insubordinate and tactless. It’s exile.”

A nurse who worked at Hallym University Hospital requesting anonymity said that she witnessed her seniors instructing a new nurse to stare at a wall all day since it was the “only way she could stop making mistakes.”

“They were trying to get her to quit,” she said.

On top of harassment from superiors, peers, and even patients, Korean nurses have also long dealt with poor working conditions that have mostly been swept under the rug for years.

Nearly 20 percent said they experienced sexual harassment on the job while 35 percent were forced to work overtime without pay, according to a survey conducted by the Korean Nurses Association and the Ministry of Health and Welfare. A “pregnancy waiting list” where nurses must also informally “take turns” to go on maternal leave has also long been criticized.

Kang noted that there have been “laughable” efforts to change the deeply rooted culture.

“I’ve seen some improvements. Hospitals are launching ‘campaigns’ that encourage nurses to stop throwing pens, refrain from sighing, and stop yelling at new nurses now,” Kang said. She noted that some senior nurses even throw a one-year party for the small number of nurses that make it through a year without quitting.

“It’s funny because usually only half of the newcomers remain,” Kang said.

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