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Caring for Our Nurses: Addressing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Written by Kathleen Larkin

If we have learned anything in the last few years, it’s the incredibly valuable role that nurses play in keeping our society functioning. Yet as a society, we continue to allow nurses to work in an environment that puts them at risk of sexual harassment from coworkers and patients.

The sad reality is 91% of nurses report experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace. The sexual harassment nurses experience can take many forms including, but not limited to, unwanted touching, inappropriate jokes, staring, and in the most serve instances, non-consensual sexual acts.

The hierarchical nature of hospitals further compounds this issue, with a staggering 82% of sexual harassment committed against nurses by physicians. This is ironic when you consider the “do no harm” oath that all physicians take. It isn’t hard to understand why a nurse would be reticent to report the doctor’s inappropriate behaviour when you consider the power imbalance that exists between them.

The impact of sexual harassment is extensive. Physical symptoms can include headaches, exhaustion, dizziness, nausea, and changes in weight. Equally as worrisome are its impacts on mental health, with nurses reporting that they experienced nightmares, increased stress, anger, nervousness, and general emotional dysregulation. These impacts differ from person to person, but the overarching narrative is that sexual harassment doesn’t end when the perpetrator ceases harassment; it has long-lasting, serious implications. It can also impact others in the workplace who are witnessing the harassment and realize that nothing is being done about it by management.

Given the prevalence of sexual harassment towards nurses it is essential that hospitals, university programs, and other environments where nurses are employed create policies that protect them from being harassed and provide education to all staff and managers about how to prevent and appropriately address it. At the most basic level, nurses must be educated about their right to be free from sexual harassment in the workplace and that this is not part of their job description. Policies and procedures should be developed that explain how to report the harassment and should include a strict prohibition about any kind of reprisal if a nurse reports. Every incident reported should be taken with great seriousness and properly investigated. A report outlining the finding of the investigation and the actions taken must be provided to the person who made the report. Even more paramount, however, is ensuring that there are supports embedded in the workplace for nurses to access following instances of sexual harassment. Counselling, time off, and the ability to move departments if necessary are just a few examples of supports that can be made available.

In addition to creating these supports, institutions must address sexual harassment at its root through employee training sessions. These should occur during employee onboarding and annually thereafter and involve a discussion on what behaviour is appropriate in the workplace, how to address sexual harassment if you see it happen or it happens to you, and an overview of the reporting structures and procedures in place.

Nobody deserves to experience sexual harassment in the workplace, least of all those who work tireless hours treating vulnerable populations. The Legal Clinic is striving to create programs and training to help nurses who have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace and prevent it from occurring to others. Please contact us at 613-264-7153 or or visit our website at www.tlcshiwproject if you would like more information.

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