'Truly Shocking': Medscape UK Nurses' Sexual Harassment Survey Results

Tim Locke

October 16, 2019

Earlier this month we published Medscape UK's exclusive survey about sexual harassment of doctors in the workplace. As well as doctors, 881 nurses also responded to our online survey. Of these, 85% were female, 15% male.

One in 20 nurses (5%) have experienced sexual harassment by another staff member in the past 3 years. Slightly more male nurses (7%) experienced incidents than female nurses (5%). Slightly more male (9%) than female (7%) nurses witnessed harassment. One percent of all nurses were accused of sexual abuse, harassment, or misconduct.

However, nurses were five times more likely to be sexually harassed by a patient than by a colleague.

The Royal College of Nursing described the findings as "truly shocking".

Types of Sexual Harassment

Similar to doctors, infringement on body space and unwanted physical contact, and sexual comments, were the most common types of incident experienced by nurses. A single harasser was cited by 38% of nurses, 47% cited two to three individuals. Another nurse was cited as the harasser in 32% of cases, a doctor in 26%. Among nurses, nearly 80% of perpetrators of sexual harassment were male. Among female nurses, 9 in 10 cited a male. Harassment occurred across all nurse age groups but was less common after age 60.

Of nurses sexually harassed by patients, patients acting in an overtly sexual manner (52%) and attempts to touch them (48%) were most common. 

Requests for dates were mentioned by 32%.

For nurses who had been harassed, deliberate infringement of body space was mentioned most often as affecting wellbeing. Next were sexual comments/leering, threats relating to refusal of sexual favours, and unwanted groping or other physical contact. The experience caused upset for nearly half of nurses who had been harassed. Almost a third of nurses who were harassed felt that the experience interfered with their ability to do their job.

Specialties Where Sexual Harassment Was More Prevalent

Harassment of nurses by colleagues was more prevalent in some specialties, such as psychiatry, general practice, and cardiology, and less common in others, including emergency medicine, orthopaedics, and anaesthetics. In nearly half of cases (49%), the perpetrator was in a superior position to the nurse experiencing harassment, an equal position for 30%, and a subordinate for 21%.

For nurses sexually harassed by patients, emergency medicine was most common (42%), followed by general practice (38%), and psychiatry (37%).

Administrative areas/offices, out-patient clinics, corridors, hospital wards, and operating theatres were commonly cited by nurses as settings for harassment.

Confronting and Reporting

Fewer than half of sexually harassed nurses confronted their perpetrator. Of those who did, 38% told them to stop, and 23% told them how the incident made them feel. The majority of nurses who were harassed (60%) did not report the behaviour. Of those who did make a report to someone, the most common choices were a direct supervisor, a colleague, or practice manager.

Impressions of colleagues can be misleading, it seems. Just over a quarter of nurses had a positive impression of the perpetrator prior to the harassment incident. Most harassed nurses (95%) still had to interact with their harasser as part of their job responsibilities.

How Was Nurses' Work Affected?

The majority of nurses (70%) felt their work was impacted by their harassment experience. The most common response was to avoid working with specific colleagues. Nearly a quarter (23%) had difficulty concentrating after their experience.

Around 40% of nurses adopted negative behaviours to help cope with their sexual harassment experience. More than a quarter (26%) isolated themselves, followed by alcohol use (21%), binge eating (19%), and junk food (13%).

Only 15% of nurses said mandatory harassment training took place in their workplace. Only 27% were aware of workplace grievance procedures.

Patient care is negatively impacted by sexual harassment in the workplace, according to 80% of nurse respondents. Just over half (55%) trusted their workplace to have well-trained and competent investigators. Nearly two-fifths (39%) felt that those who are more senior or successful are likely to be granted greater leeway for inappropriate conduct. One in 10 believed their workplace tacitly accepts sexual harassment.

When patients sexually harass nurses, the typical response is to ask the patient to stop, and/or ensure that they are no longer alone with the patient.

Few dismiss patients or accept their advances.

Nurses' Personal Experiences of Sexual Harassment

Many nurses who'd experienced or witnessed sexual harassment also shared their thoughts on their experiences.

"Unsolicited and inappropriate touching by two male patients, one with dementia." One nurse told us: "It's inevitable on a hospital ward." However, she said there was "no point" in reporting it but advised: "Be assertive. Nip it in the bud."

"Was pushed up against wall whilst stepping aside to let patient pass in corridor. Pushed me against wall and tried to kiss me on mouth with his arms wrapped around me to stop me getting away. Saying 'I bloody love you'. I had never seen this patient in the past and was not part of his care." The practice nurse reported it, but she said: "Management treated the incident with humour and were dismissive."  

"It makes me feel dirty and used," another practice nurse said. She advises: "Report all issues."

One hospital nurse said: "He thought he was God's gift and thought he could hug and kiss the face or neck of anyone he wanted too. He only thought he was being friendly even when told it made me uncomfortable." She said the perpetrator has since been dismissed for another reason, and she advises: "Report it and ask anyone who has witnessed it to back you up."

A male hospital nurse said the perpetrator "was alternatively hostile, gossipy, and undermining and gave inappropriate hugs and rubs of my body". He didn’t report it: "I felt I couldn't report it as a man, there will be no change in this nurse's approach to me and potentially others in the future. It's a major reason why I left my senior nursing post and had time off work for stress."

He said it was "shockingly unexpected to experience such repeated abuse as a male nurse in a mainly female environment. Must be worse for women but it still makes me feel sick to the core."

A female critical care nurse spoke up for those falsely accused: "It is something we need to take seriously. However, I have also known lives be ruined by false accusations. I notice that our hospital policy refers to support for the victim, but makes no mention of the fact that the accused person also has rights and needs support, particularly prior to and during any investigation, the outcome of which may be that no wrong has been committed. Not everyone who makes a mistake is a sociopath or pervert. It almost seems to be too easy to make an accusation if a person wants to victimise someone they don't like. I don't know how to prevent that though, without making it harder for genuine victims to report a problem."

'Truly Shocking'

Medscape UK shared the survey findings with the RCN. In a statement, National Officer Kim Sunley, said: "It is truly shocking to hear that nurses are being sexually harassed, sometimes even by the very patients they are caring for. Nurses should not go to work [and] experience being pushed up against a wall, inappropriately touched, or kissed.

"Harassment like this, or of any nature, in the workplace or elsewhere is never acceptable and should not be tolerated.

"The NHS can’t underestimate the corrosive effect of sexual harassment on staff morale which can lead to long-term stress-related absences, workers leaving the health service altogether and according to this report, turning to alcohol to cope with the trauma. Employers must not shirk their responsibilities and demonstrate clearly to staff they are taking sexual harassment seriously.

"We urge anyone who is being affected to speak up about this as soon as they can because the sooner they tell someone, the easier it is to hold perpetrators to account and stop this destructive behaviour.

"The issue of third party sexual harassment was discussed at our Congress earlier this year where the RCN reaffirmed its zero-tolerance approach to such behaviour."

NHS England commented on our overall survey findings saying that: "No-one working for the NHS should have to tolerate sexual harassment from either patients or fellow healthcare colleagues and if there is any suggestion of criminal behaviour, the NHS will work with the police and Crown Prosecution Service to secure swift prosecutions.

"The NHS is also investing £2m every year in a programme which offers mental health support for victims of harassment or violence."

Methodology

Doctors and other health professionals living and practising in the UK were invited to participate in an online survey. The data collection period was June 11th to August 7th 2019.

The margin of error for nurses was +/-3.30%. The margin of error for those who experienced sexual harassment was +/- 14.29% for nurses.

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