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Sexual harassment by patients or the public: RCN issues advice for nurses

Guidance aims to support nurses to speak up and encourage employers to tackle the issue
Picture shows a young female medic in conversation with an older woman

Guidance aims to support nurses to speak up and encourage employers to tackle the issue

Nurses should report sexual harassment to employers no matter how small it might seem, says new RCN guidance .

The guidance follows a survey of 8,000 healthcare staff by public service trade union Unison in June last year, which revealed one in 12 nurses and other NHS staff (8%) had experienced sexual harassment in the preceding two years.

Guidance explains nurses rights

The newly published RCN guidance explains nurses rights following sexual harassment from a patient, a patients associate, a client or a member of the public while at work, and highlights how lone workers can be particularly vulnerable.

    Guidance aims to support nurses to speak up and encourage employers to tackle the issue

    Picture shows a young female medic in conversation with an older woman
    Picture: iStock

    Nurses should report sexual harassment to employers ‘no matter how small’ it might seem, says new RCN guidance.

    The guidance follows a survey of 8,000 healthcare staff by public service trade union Unison in June last year, which revealed one in 12 nurses and other NHS staff (8%) had experienced sexual harassment in the preceding two years.

    Guidance explains nurses’ rights

    The newly published RCN guidance explains nurses’ rights following sexual harassment from a patient, a patient’s associate, a client or a member of the public while at work, and highlights how lone workers can be particularly vulnerable.

    One newly qualified nurse quoted in the guidance said: ‘Every time I went to make (my patient’s) bed he would ask me to jump in with him and made comments about my breasts and asked me whether I had a boyfriend.’

    ‘People feel embarrassed or think their career will be affected if they tell’

    RCN national officer for health and safety Kim Sunley said she hoped the guidance would empower people to speak up and support improvements in how the issue is tackled by employers.

    ‘Third-party harassment is too often underreported because nursing staff are concerned their employers won’t take their concerns seriously,’ she said.

    ‘Sometimes people feel embarrassed or think their career will be affected if they tell someone, but that should never be the case.’

    Behaviour that creates an intimidating, degrading or offensive environment

    The guidance defines sexual harassment as behaviour that creates ‘an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment’, including inappropriate touching, unwanted sexual advances and sharing or sending inappropriate images via social media.

    Sometimes this behaviour can lead to sexual assault or stalking behaviours, it says.

    The guidance states: ‘Anything that makes you feel uncomfortable, violated or abused, no matter how small, should be reported. It could be the start of something bigger or, unbeknown to you, other staff could have complained previously.’

    What to do if you experience sexual harassment

    • Always report cases of third-party harassment to your employer – don’t be put off reporting by colleagues or managers
    • Check your employer’s policy on violence, abuse and workplace harassment and follow steps on how to report 
    • If there is no policy, report verbally to your manager, record it on your organisation’s incident reporting system and keep a record of all instances
    • Speak to your RCN workplace representative or call RCN Direct for advice
    • Students on placement should raise issues with mentors, tutors and an RCN student ambassador

    Find out more


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