NHS staff have been shown porn and offered money for sex at work

Survey gives indication of scale of sexual harassment problems

NHS staff including ambulance workers,111 call handlers, porters, nurses and cleaners have been shown pornographic images, offered money for sex and assaulted at work, according to research published by UNISON today (Monday).

In a survey released to coincide with the first day of UNISON’s annual health conference in Brighton, one in ten (10%) healthcare workers reported experiences of sexual harassment.

This included being touched or kissed, demands for sex in return for favours and derogatory comments.

Sexual assault was reported by almost three in ten (29%) of all the health workers who’d experienced sexual harassment. Half (50%) said they had been leered at or been the target of suggestive gestures, while a quarter (25%) said they had suffered unwelcome sexual advances, propositions or demands for sexual favours.

Unwanted crude ‘banter’ or ‘jokes’ were the most common issue, reported by three in five (61%) workers who had experienced some form of harassment, according to the data from a survey of 12,243 health workers.

Other complaints included invading someone’s personal space (57%), unwanted comments about clothing or appearance (53%), unwelcome messages of a sexual nature (15%) and exposure to offensive material such as pornographic images (8%).

More than a quarter (27%) of the harassment incidents occurred within the past 12 months, 19% between one and three years ago, and the rest were three or more years ago.

For those workers subjected to harassment, more than half (56%) said incidents involved colleagues, two fifths experienced problems with patients and 16% were caused by managers.

Despite the serious and even criminal nature of some of the incidents, half the staff (51%) hadn’t reported the sexual harassment to their employer.

The main reason for this was a fear of being considered ‘over-sensitive’ (60%), followed by a lack of trust in the process (53%) and a feeling that their employer would not act on their complaint (48%).

Incidents included a 111 adviser, who as a survivor of sexual abuse herself, described being regularly harassed on the phone by anonymous callers. The only response from her managers was to be told it was just part of the job.

Others included both male and female health staff sexually assaulted and even raped at work, a male colleague undoing a health worker’s bra as she walked down the corridor, an employee being offered money in exchange for sex by a colleague and staff being groped by patients.

UNISON wants to see a change in the law so employers are also responsible for protecting their staff against harassment from patients or those working for contractors.* At its annual health conference, beginning today, the union will also be debating how to get NHS organisations to adopt and implement the ten commitments in the NHS sexual safety charter.

Commenting on the survey, UNISON general secretary Christina McAnea said: “No one should ever have to endure such despicable behaviour, and certainly not in their place of work.

“But NHS staff often put up with this appalling abuse, not reporting it because they don’t believe they’ll be taken seriously.

“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.

“Employers must take swift action when workers flag up incidents regardless of whether the sexual harassment has come from a patient or a colleague. Otherwise, this completely unacceptable behaviour will simply continue.”

Notes to editors:
– Below are some of the experiences of survey respondents:
“A senior doctor used to take advantage when I was in one of the consulting rooms on my own by invading my space, hugging, kissing, touching in a sexual way, despite constant requests for them to stop. I did not feel confident to raise these assaults with anyone senior.” Midwife, Yorkshire and Humberside
“A work colleague is constantly messaging me, booking on to the same shifts as me and making sexual advances. I tried to avoid working with him, but he was relentless.” Emergency care assistant, South West
“I was harassed by a patient who exposed himself to me. Asking me to get in the bed with him and trying to grab my genitals. I reported it numerous times but was told he had a brain injury and couldn’t help it. I was still expected to care for him.” Support worker, North West
“Sometimes what is deemed banter or jokes are a little too strong and go too far.” Admin worker, East of England
“I have experienced unwanted sexual comments and physical contact as a ‘joke’ from a doctor. I have also had my breasts touched and a patient put their hand up my uniform dress. These incidents have been from confused patients so we tend to brush the incidents off but it’s still unpleasant.” Nurse, North East
“I have witnessed complete blurred boundaries, observed kissing, men grabbing colleagues from behind and pushing themselves into them. There have been foot rubs, massages, I’ve experienced someone inappropriately stroking my arm, someone sneaking up behind me and jabbing their fingers into my ribs and someone slapping my bum. I even had someone pushing a lock of hair behind my ear when I was alone with them.” Pathology technician, Yorkshire and Humberside
“I’ve had comments about my hair, how I look and how they would love to have sex with me, which reminded me of when I was raped at a young age by a male patient.” Nurse, West Midlands
“Fairly frequently, members of the public call 111 and try to use it as a sex line. We have a ‘three warnings’ policy before we hang up. Sometimes I have to go through an entire call and assessment with a patient about a personal issue whilst they are making sexual comments and crude jokes the entire time. I really hate it. It’s very common during night shifts. The same people often call again and again during the same shift and there’s nothing we can do.” 111 call handler, Wales
“Most weeks there are one or two comments made. I have been sexually assaulted, been touched without consent, had my hair pulled whilst driving. I was also assaulted and raped by two male colleagues after a night out 2 years ago. I did not report this.” Paramedic, South West
– The survey was carried out from 19 February to 8 March this year. There were 12,243 responses from staff working in healthcare across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland including nurses, paramedics, pharmacists, administrative workers and cleaners. Of those responses 1,187 (10%) said they’d been sexually harassed.
– UNISON’s annual health conference takes place from today (Monday) to Wednesday 10 April 2024. It takes place at the Brighton Centre, Kings Road, Brighton BN1 2GR. Health workers from across the UK will be in attendance to debate a variety of motions including those on NHS pay, mileage rates, bank staff, a shorter working week, support for healthcare students, tackling racism, mental health, sexual safety, healthcare assistant rebanding, artificial intelligence and safe staffing. UNISON general secretary Christina McAnea will address the conference on Tuesday morning. The final agenda is here.
– The conference will address the sexual misconduct and violence in a motion to be discussed on Monday afternoon. It encourages all NHS organisations to adopt the NHS sexual safety charter, which takes a zero-tolerance approach to the problems, to ensure staff are safe and supported at work.
– *In 2013 the government repealed section 40 of the Equality Act 2010. Before this, employers were liable if they had been made aware of three incidents of harassment but had failed to act. In 2018 the Court of Appeal ruled that third party harassment (by patients or contractors) was no longer covered by the Act. UNISON is campaigning for a change in the law so employers are also responsible for protecting their staff against harassment from patients or those working for contractors..

Media contacts:
Liz Chinchen M: 07778 158175 E: l.chinchen@unison.co.uk
Anthony Barnes  M: 07834 864794 E: a.barnes@unison.co.uk