Sexual harassment of NHS staff

Survey reveals scale of sexual harassment experienced by NHS staff

NHS leaders are calling for action as new figures show that one in 10 (10%) healthcare workers have reported instances of sexual harassment.

The data comes from a UNISON survey of more than 12,200 health workers, including ambulance professionals, 111 call handlers, porters, nurses, and cleaners.

Of those who had experience harassment, sexual assault was reported by nearly three in 10 (29%), while half (50%) said they had been leered at, and a quarter (25%) had been on the end of unwanted sexual advances.

The most common issue (61%) noted by those who reported harassment was unwelcome ‘banter’ and ‘jokes’.

Other complaints centred around invading personal space (57%), comments about clothing or appearance (53%), sexual messages (15%), and pornographic material (8%).

"These findings are deeply concerning”

Over half (54%) of the incidents had occurred three or more years ago, one in five (19%) between one and three years ago, and more than a quarter (27%) within the last 12 months.

"Trust leaders do not tolerate any form of sexual harassment in the NHS,” said NHS Providers’ chief executive, Sir Julian Hartley. "These findings are deeply concerning and make clear more must be done to stamp out this type of unacceptable behaviour towards staff.”

NHS England’s sexual safety charter is part of the sector’s efforts to stamp out this behaviour and was launched last autumn in a landmark move to protect staff.

NHS Providers is urging all healthcare organisations to sign up to the charter to ensure a “zero-tolerance approach”.

The NHS Confederation is backing the call to sign up to the charter too, as well as encouraging staff to report any incidents because “commitment must be backed up by action” according to the organisation’s chief executive, Matthew Taylor.

The General Medical Council also moved to better protect doctors last year, with a landmark update to its Good medical practice standards which came into effect early this year.

“Employers must take swift action”

This comes as the UNISON survey shows that over half (51%) did not report the sexual harassment to their employer because:

  • They feared being deemed overly sensitive (60%)
  • They did not trust the process (53%)
  • They did not believe their employer would act accordingly (48%)

Over half (56%) of the respondents reported their incidents involved colleagues and almost a fifth (16%) said they involved managers.

UNISON is now calling for employers to be more accountable and responsible for protecting their staff from harassment.

Christina McAnea, general secretary at UNISON, said: “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.”

She continued: “Employers must take swift action when workers flag up incidents regardless of whether the sexual harassment has come from a patient or a colleague.”

Image credit: iStock

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NHE May/June 2024

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