Health staff are suffering serious sexual harassment at work

Nurses, care assistants, cleaners and other NHS staff have suffered lewd sexual insults, groping and even rape while at work, according to research published by UNISON this week.

Being leered at or subjected to offensive ‘banter’ and suggestive gestures are regular occurrences for some of the nearly one in ten (8%) healthcare staff who reported being sexually harassed in the past year.

Verbal abuse (64%), such as unwanted remarks and jokes was the most common complaint, according to the report It’s Never Ok, released on the penultimate day of UNISON’s annual conference in Liverpool.

Nearly a quarter (22%) of the healthcare staff reporting harassment said they had been sexually assaulted. Some had also been the victim of criminal offences such as rape, up-skirting*, indecent exposure or inappropriate touching.

The findings in It’s Never Ok are taken from a much larger survey of 8,000 health workers and their experiences at work. It highlights the psychological trauma suffered by the 700 staff who responded to say they’d suffered sexual harassment in the past year. Some have even contemplated suicide, self-harmed or been driven to either leave their job or look for another, which UNISON says adds to the ongoing NHS staffing crisis. This shows the need for a tougher approach from government against employers who fail to tackle sexual harassment, says UNISON. It wants to see a change in the law so employers are also responsible for protecting their staff against harassment from for example patients or those working for contractors.* It’s Never Ok reveals that the vast majority of those targeted were women (81%) and incidents mainly involved perpetrators who were older (61%) than their target, and often employed in more powerful roles (37%). Acts of sexual harassment were most often committed by colleagues (54%). A quarter were committed by other workers (24%) and two fifths (42%) by patients. Nearly a third (31%) who had been sexually harassed said it had occurred on a regular basis and more than one in ten (12%) weekly or daily. The psychological impact can be devastating for some, according to It’s Never Ok. More than half (55%) ended up isolating themselves or avoiding colleagues/situations at work and more than a third (35%) said the harassment affected their mental health or confidence (34%). Others (40%) have ended up wanting to leave their job. However, more than a quarter (28%) kept quiet about the harassment and only one in five (20%) reported it to human resources or their managers. Reasons for not reporting included the belief that nothing would be done (49%), they would be dismissed as oversensitive (37%) or the perpetrator would retaliate (24%). Incidents described by survey respondents include: three reports of rape and one involving threats to rape; a team member upskirting a colleague then ‘accidentally’ sending the video to another member of staff; and an employee being sent nude images of colleagues via the online dating app Grindr. Commenting on the report, UNISON assistant general secretary Christina McAnea said: “Staff should never have to face any kind of abuse, let alone sexually motivated insults and attacks. “Many nurses, cleaners and administrative workers feel they have to put up with appalling behaviour as nothing will be done. This is generally because the perpetrators are in a position of power – or believe they are untouchable. “The workplace which should be a harassment-free zone and employers who fail to act should be held to account.”

Date Online: 21/06/2019

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