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10% of healthcare workers experience sexual harassment, survey finds

Health union Unison is calling for a change in the law so NHS employers are responsible for protecting their staff against sexual harassment from patients.

In a survey released to coincide with the first day of UNISON’s annual health conference in Brighton, one in ten (10%) healthcare workers reported experiences of sexual harassment, yet half do not report it to their employer. The main reason for this was a fear of being considered ‘over-sensitive’ (60%), followed by a lack of trust in the process (53%) and a feeling that their employer would not act on their complaint (48%).

Sexual assault was reported by almost three in ten (29%) of all the health workers who’d experienced sexual harassment. Half (50%) said they had been leered at or been the target of suggestive gestures, while a quarter (25%) said they had suffered unwelcome sexual advances, propositions or demands for sexual favours.

Unwanted crude ‘banter’ or ‘jokes’ were the most common issue, reported by three in five (61%) workers who had experienced some form of harassment, according to the data from a survey of 12,243 health workers.

UNISON general secretary Christina McAnea said: “No one should ever have to endure such despicable behaviour, and certainly not in their place of work. But NHS staff often put up with this appalling abuse, not reporting it because they don’t believe they’ll be taken seriously.

“More must be done to protect nurses, healthcare assistants, cleaners and other NHS staff from sexual harassment, reassure them their complaints will be fully investigated and action taken against the perpetrators. Employers must take swift action when workers flag up incidents regardless of whether the sexual harassment has come from a patient or a colleague. Otherwise, this completely unacceptable behaviour will simply continue.”

Stamping out sexual harassment is top priority for health leaders

Other complaints included invading someone’s personal space (57%), unwanted comments about clothing or appearance (53%), unwelcome messages of a sexual nature (15%) and exposure to offensive material such as pornographic images (8%).

More than a quarter (27%) of the harassment incidents occurred within the past 12 months, 19% between one and three years ago, and the rest were three or more years ago.

For those workers subjected to harassment, more than half (56%) said incidents involved colleagues, two fifths experienced problems with patients and 16% were caused by managers. Despite the serious and even criminal nature of some of the incidents, half the staff (51%) hadn’t reported the sexual harassment to their employer.

The NHS Confederation said that the behaviours that some NHS staff have been forced to endure are unacceptable and stamping this out is a top priority for health leaders.

Matthew Taylor, chief executive, added: “NHS leaders and their teams are working hard to ensure all staff are treated with the dignity and respect they are entitled to. But this survey shows that more work needs to be done, with the proportion of staff facing harassment or sexual assault much too high.

“The NHS launched its first sexual safety charter last year and we would encourage all organisations to sign up. Signatories to this charter have committed to enforcing a zero-tolerance approach to any unwanted, inappropriate or harmful sexual behaviours within the workplace. But commitment must be backed up by action, so we would urge staff to report these behaviours so organisations can take steps to root it out and address it.”

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