Majority of nursing staff have experienced sexual harassment at work, survey shows

Three in five nurses (60%) have experienced sexual harassment at work, according to a survey published today (Thursday) by UNISON and Nursing Times.

More than 2,000 nursing staff and students took part in the research, which shows that ​incidents ​of sexual harassment are almost commonplace, with staff targeted by patients, family and friends of those in their care, and their own health colleagues.

Some said they were expected to put up with abusive behaviour because it ​was seen as “just part of the job”, while a number described it happening so frequently that it ha​d become “normal”.

For many, these were far from one-off incidents. As many as one in nine (11%) said they often encountered such experiences and a fifth (21%) reported occasional harassment.

Of those who had been harassed, only around a quarter (27%) had reported it to their employer. ​Others said they didn’t believe the issue ​was taken seriously and a third (35%) said not enough was being done to protect them from incidents in the workplace.

The most common harassment was verbal and encountered by more than half (56%) of all who took part in the survey, including comments about appearance, questions about private lives or inappropriate jokes.

More than a third (37%) had experienced physical incidents, including being groped by patients during procedures and having their bodies touched by colleagues.

Almost three in five (58%) of those who had been harassed said it was by a patient, a quarter (26%) by medical colleagues, a similar proportion (24%) by other nursing colleagues and almost one in five (19%) 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.”

Incidents occurred regardless of gender with three fifths (62%) of female respondents encountering harassment and half (51%) of male nursing staff.

Some who gave their views in the survey said there continued to be a damaging sexualised image of nurses from old movies and the media. One said: “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.”

UNISON national women’s officer Josie Irwin 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.”

Editor of Nursing Times Steve Ford said: “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.”

Notes to editors:
– A total of 2,382 people took part in the survey conducted in May. Of these, 88% were women, 11% were men, while 1% preferred not to say.
– The full results of the survey are here.
– UNISON is the UK’s largest union, with more than 1.3 million members providing public services in education, local government, the NHS, police service and energy. They are employed in the public, voluntary and private sectors.

Media contacts:
Anthony Barnes, UNISON  M: 07834 864794 E:
Gemma Mitchell, Nursing Times T: 0203 953 2710 E: