More needs to be done to protect nurses against “sex pests”, a leading union has said after a poll found that six in 10 nurses have been sexually harassed at work.
The most common form of harassment was verbal with 56% of nurses reporting that they has been confronted with inappropriate jokes, comments about their appearance, invitations on a date or questions about their private lives.
But 37% reported unwanted physical advances including unwelcome touching, hugging or kissing, and invasion of personal space.
The survey of more than 2,000 nurses in the UK, conducted by the union Unison and the Nursing Times, found that 60% had been sexually harassed either by patients or colleagues.
For many nurses, sexual harassment was far from a one-off incident, with 11% reporting they often encountered such experiences and a fifth (21%) reported occasional harassment.
Some said they were expected to put up with abusive behaviour because it was seen as “just part of the job”.
Almost three in five (58%) of those who had been harassed said it was by a patient, 26% said they had been harassed by medical colleagues, a similar proportion (24%) by other nursing colleagues and 19% said that they had been harassed by family and friends of patients.
One community nurse who took part in the survey said: “Sexual harassment needs to be viewed as a more serious offence than it currently is.
“The response I got from my manager and colleagues was, ‘well, that’s just part of the job’. It isn’t. It’s offensive and abusive and makes you feel scared to go to work.”
Another nurse added: “The public think nurses are fair game, with comments about uniforms. This makes it hard to address as these are our patients and visitors. But trusts need to do more and we need to change the public’s perception from the Carry On film image of nursing.”
Josie Irwin, national women’s officer at Unison, said: “Harassment of any form is simply wrong. Staff working in the NHS must be able to do their jobs without fear of unwanted attention, lewd remarks or being made to feel uncomfortable.
“Employers must do their utmost to protect nurses against sex pests, regardless of whether the culprit is a patient or colleague. This survey shows there’s still much more to do.”
The editor of Nursing Times, Steve Ford, added: “Sexual harassment in health and care settings fails to get the attention it deserves.
“The concern is it’s become ‘normalised’ – something that nurses have to endure as part of their everyday working lives.
“Shockingly, almost three-quarters of those who were harassed didn’t report the incidents to their employer.
“These findings are deeply worrying. This survey has to be the starting point of change. Nursing staff should not be expected or allowed to tolerate sexual harassment. Enough is enough.”
Hilary Garratt, deputy chief nursing officer for England, said: “It is completely unacceptable for any member of staff to be subjected to abuse or harassment or be made to feel uncomfortable while caring for patients and their families.
“The NHS is committed to creating a positive work environment and we would encourage all affected staff to speak up so that we can provide the support they need.”
Hannah Reed, national officer in employment relations at the Royal College of Nursing, added: “Everyone should be treated with dignity and respect at work.
“Sexual harassment, or indeed any form of bullying or harassment, is unacceptable and employers have a duty of care to provide a safe working environment for their staff.”