Only a fifth of NHS staff say their employer has implemented a sexual harassment policy, indicating that workers believe it is failing to take a tough line on lewd behaviour.
According to the Unison union, 8% of NHS staff has been sexually harassed in the past 12 months, suffering behaviour including sexual comments, groping and rape.
Of these, 31% said the harassment was frequent and regular, and 12% said it occurred on a weekly or daily basis.
Inappropriate remarks, “banter” and jokes were the most commonly experienced harassment behaviours reported by health workers (64%) – which included ambulance workers, occupational therapists, pharmacy staff and those employed at arms-length health bodies, as well as those based in NHS hospitals.
Invasion of personal space (53%), unwanted comments about clothing and appearance (49%) and suggestive gestures (48%) were also frequently reported.
However, the survey of 8,847 health staff – part of Unison’s It’s Never OK report – also revealed more serious incidents, including assault, up-skirting, three rapes and one incident of a patient performing a sex act.
Unison said it wanted to see the reinstatement of section 40 of the Equality Act, which ensured staff were protected against harassment by third parties by making employers liable if they failed to act after two incidents.
It also called for the creation of an NHS “gold standard” complaints procedure to give staff the confidence that their claims will be properly investigated.
Many workers (28%) kept quiet about the harassment they experienced and only 20% reported it to their manager or HR. Reasons for not formally reporting incidents included the feeling that nothing would be done (49%); feeling they would be seen as oversensitive (37%); fearing the perpetrator would retaliate (24%); and worrying it would harm their career (22%).
“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,” said Unison assistant general secretary Christina McAnea.
“The workplace which should be a harassment-free zone and employers who fail to act should be held to account.”
Although more than two-thirds (68%) of survey respondents said their employer had a policy on sexual harassment, only 17% said this policy was implemented.
Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, said NHS organisations have clear procedures in place to deal with reports of harassment or bullying.
“It is not always easy for concerns to be raised – especially when the perpetrators are in positions of authority. Most NHS organisations have specially trained staff in place to help colleagues raise concerns about such utterly abhorrent behaviour.
“Freedom to speak up guardians as well as Guardians of Safe Working, chaplaincy, trade union and HR staff are also on hand to offer support,” he said.