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Is Sexual Harassment of Nurses a Common Problem?

August 9th, 2021

Recent polling suggests the nation’s nurses endure a highly disproportionate amount of sexual harassment. Professional colleagues are a significant source of the sexual harassment. But patients and their families and friends account for the vast majority of sexual harassment encountered by nurses. Whether the source is from a coworker or a patient, job providers are liable for workplace sexual harassment complaints, and employment lawyers can help to hold them accountable.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) defines sexual harassment as any non-consensual sexual act as defined by federal, state, or tribal laws. A non-consensual act includes any time the victim does not have the ability or mental capacity to consent to one or more sexual acts. That means a drugged or overly drunk individual, especially one who did not consent to imbibing in drugs or alcohol, does not have the capacity to give consent. The same goes for an individual who is passed out or otherwise incapacitated.

The sexual harassment does not have to include direct physical contact. The DOJ says sexual harassment is a type of employment discrimination and often times involves verbal comments that targets an individual. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) says workers must be protected against discrimination and sexual harassment. A recently published study shows that is not happening across the entire nursing industry.

Majority of Nurses Endure Sexual Harassment

Among more than 2,300 nurses polled, 60 percent said they had been sexually harassed by professional colleagues or by patients, according to recent polling published in Nursing Times. About 11 percent of respondents said they frequently experienced sexual harassment, while another 21 percent said they occasionally experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.

That means nearly a third of nurses could repeatedly become subjected to sexual harassment while on the job. When the job includes direct contact with patients, more opportunities arise for sexual harassment that also might rise to the level of criminal sexual contact in some instances. Many colleagues likewise come into close contact with nurses and at times in relatively isolated locations where sexual harassment could occur more easily.

Nurses by their nature are helpful people and have dedicated their professional careers to helping others who are in need. Yet, many of those very people wind up being the ones sexually harassing their would-be helpers. Thankfully, laws exist protecting nurses and virtually all other workers against sexual harassment from colleagues or clients and customers alike. That includes medical patients and their families and friends.

Several Ways in Which Sexual Harassment Occurs

The nurses responding to the sexual harassment poll published by Nursing Times identified several ways in which they commonly experienced sexual harassment while working. The most common is verbal harassment, which 56 percent of nurses cited. Examples of verbal harassment include:

  • Jokes with inappropriate content
  • Remarks about how a nurse looks
  • Invites to go out on date.
  • Questions regarding nurses’ private affairs

More than a third of nurses, 37 percent, said they were physically harassed while working, including being groped. Any unwanted or unwelcome touching could rise to the level of a criminal offense in many jurisdictions.

About 62 percent of female nurses polled said they experienced sexual harassment versus 51 percent of their male nurse counterparts. Of the more than 2,300 respondents, 88 percent identified their gender as female, while 11 percent identified as male. Another one percent did not identify their gender. 

Patients, Families, and Friends Harass Most Often

It is important to note that many nurses provide in-home services, which could leave them more vulnerable to sexual harassment. When the vast majority of those committing the sexual harassment are the patients, their families, or friends, it becomes very clear that nurses providing in-home care are especially prone to endure sexual harassment.

The poll published in Nursing Timesshows 58 percent of nurses reported sexual harassment by patients. Another 19 percent reported sexual harassment came from the family members and friends of their patients.

The poll did not indicate how many nurses might have experienced harassment from patients and their family or friends. Common sense suggests a significant percentage of nurses likely endured sexual harassment from patients and their family or friends.

Some patients likely are under the influence of strong pain medications and other medicines that can affect their judgment. Others might view nurses as hired help who are especially vulnerable to unwanted sexual overtures and offensive touching, including groping. More than a third of the nurses polled cited physical contact, including groping, as a way in which they endured sexual harassment while working.

Significant Harassment from Medical and Nursing Colleagues

When it comes to the workplace, 26 percent of nurses said they were harassed by medical colleagues. Another 24 percent said they were harassed by nursing colleagues, Nursing Times reports. Those are very significant numbers and show that even professionals are prone to committing sexual harassment as well as being on the receiving end.

More significantly, with 62 percent of female and 51 percent of male nurses polled saying they experienced sexual harassment while working, the problem of sexual harassment clearly is a pervasive one. Ultimately, the burden lies with the employer to provide a reasonably safe and secure work environment. That includes one in which sexual harassment is limited as much as possible and complaints are handled promptly.

Most Nurses Did Not Report Sexual Harassment

A clear majority of nurses polled said they endured sexual harassment at least once. Several said they repeatedly experienced sexual harassment while working. But three-fourths of those polled said they did not report incidents of sexual harassment to their employers.

There are many reasons why nurses do not report sexual harassment, including a fear of not advancing in their career. If the offender is a doctor or highly positioned medical professional, many nurses feel intimidated and do not want to jeopardize their nursing careers. When the offender is a patient, nurses might simply look toward the end of the patient’s treatment as the date when the problem goes away.

Employers Need to Do More to Protect Nurses

With about 75 percent of nurses saying they do not report sexual harassment to their employers, a clear problem exists that employers must address. Instead of pretending no problems exist, hospitals, medical offices, and other facilities that employ nurses need to proactively address an obvious problem affecting the nursing industry.

The solution starts with encouraging nurses to report any instances of sexual harassment and addressing the matter directly with any offenders. The reports must be kept confidential, at least initially, to prevent retaliation and better encourage victims of sexual harassment to come forward.

Federal and state laws require employers to protect workers against a hostile work environment and discrimination. Sexual harassment qualifies as creating a hostile workplace, and the DOJ says it is a form of illegal discrimination.

That means hospitals, doctors’ offices, and other employers of nurses need to do more to protect their vulnerable nurses against ongoing sexual harassment. Failure to do so could trigger an employment discrimination case because of ongoing sexual harassment.

Bucks County Sexual Harassment Lawyers at The Gold Law Firm P.C. can Help Nurses Fight Sexual Harassment

With a majority of female and about half of all male nurses polled saying they experienced sexual harassment while working, employers must do more to protect them. The Bucks County sexual harassment lawyers at The Gold Law Firm P.C. have the skill and experience to help nurses fight sexual harassment. We will review your case and help you to present the best sexual harassment case against individual offenders and negligent employers who do not do enough to prevent sexual harassment of nurses and other employees. Call us today at 215-569-1999 or contact us online for a free consultation. Located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Pennsauken, New Jersey, we serve clients in Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, northeast Philadelphia, Bucks County, Chester County, Delaware County, Montgomery County, and Cherry Hill, South Jersey.

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