Preventing Sexual Harassment in Healthcare Settings

A young nurse holding a clipboard in an exam room.

If you work in healthcare, there is a good chance you chose to do so to support the healing and well-being of others. In spite of this, healthcare is far from exempt from the challenges presented by sexual harassment. 43% of female nurses report experiencing sexual harassment at work at the hands of their colleagues as well as their patients. 

Sexual harassment is also not limited to nurses in the healthcare industry. It includes both men and women working across all roles within the healthcare system. 

There are strong implications related to organizational culture and the tolerance of sexual harassment in the workplace. Sexual harassment can take many forms, and changing that culture of tolerance demands a holistic response.

Preventing sexual harassment in healthcare settings requires healthcare professionals to be informed, updated, and empowered about what constitutes sexual harassment and how to respond appropriately to produce better outcomes. 

What is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment can range from microaggressions tainted with sexual connotations to inappropriate verbal interactions to full-on physical contact. Unfortunately, sexual harassment isn’t necessarily clear-cut in the workplace, and there are a lot of circumstantial and contextual qualifiers that can come into play. Some acts are overt harassment, whereas others may require subjective judgements by employees and leadership. 

Legally speaking, the Supreme Court defines sexual harassment as one of the following:

  • Quid pro quo (“this for that”): job security, advancement, or benefits are tied to sexual favors. This type includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or physical or verbal conduct of a sexual nature that is tied directly or implicitly to employment.
  • Hostile work environment: inappropriate behavior is so pervasive and severe that it permeates the workplace and interferes with the individual’s ability to carry out the duties of the job.

There are degrees of harassment that can range from what some consider to be mild, to more severe interactions. The potential for subjective interpretation can muddy the water, which in turn can contribute to under-reporting. Whether it’s the fear of attention or retaliation, or possibly someone just becoming tolerant of organizational culture, healthcare workers need to be educated and empowered to decrease sexual harassment in the workplace.  

Healthcare-Specific Sexual Harassment Issues

When it comes to sexual harassment in healthcare, the industry has a unique professional and operational architecture that can set employees up for failure. Environmental characteristics can make a particular workplace or institution more vulnerable to sexual harassment, all of which can be found in healthcare organizations. 

A hierarchy of male-dominated professional roles and a high-pressure environment where those in power are often forgiven for their faults finds many analogues in healthcare. These characteristics, combined with 24/7 operations with late nights, dark hallways, and long hours spent with one another contribute to harassment in the workplace. 

Policy Development

The creation of a meaningful policy requires a solid understanding of anti-sexual harassment concepts. Education on sexual harassment in healthcare and how to respond is critical to developing a meaningful policy that will effectively support the safety of the workforce while also being easily operationalized.

Additionally, a firm and transparent stance on the prioritization of a safe work environment free of harassment of any kind is essential. Strong policy is an organizational testament to a commitment to the safety and equality of the staff while also offering guidance on personal conduct. These guidelines should include standards of behavior, a reporting process, and a description of how the institution will respond to harassment.

Raising Awareness

The first step towards solving a problem like sexual harassment is raising awareness. That includes quantifying the issues and establishing a firm stance of zero tolerance. This would ideally start from the top and work its way down so that people feel comfortable presenting their experiences to their leaders.

Acceptance of that awareness can be drilled down to individualized accountability as well. It cannot be the sole responsibility of leadership to enact a cultural shift towards greater transparency on the issue of sexual harassment. In healthcare environments, professionals need to actively educate themselves on what sexual harassment is, how to protect themselves, and how to respond if experienced or observed.

Enacting Meaningful Change

After creating a meaningful policy and raising awareness, the next big piece to the puzzle is putting that policy into action. True policy transformation demands more than just checking a box for the next time a regulatory agency is coming through to check on compliance. Staff needs to be confident that the policy will be put into action on their behalf and enforced effectively to keep them safe.

Zero tolerance is a critical piece of the puzzle in the fight against sexual harassment. There needs to be a clear message of zero tolerance conveyed to all staff members and consistency amongst leaders in enforcement.

In addition to the enforcement of policy and zero-tolerance, there needs to be accountability for supporting the victim through their experience and beyond. Support and interventions to mitigate the consequences of sexual harassment will help close the loop on the behalf of the organization as they move in the direction of shifting the organizational culture. 

Improving Workforce Safety by Preventing Sexual Harassment in Healthcare Settings

The prevalence of sexual harassment in healthcare settings is an unfortunate reality that needs to be addressed. Transitioning from a culture of fear and acceptance to that of zero tolerance requires increased knowledge and strong policies in support of staff safety.

Sexual Harassment Prevention for Healthcare Providers offered by Premiere Education is an excellent source for improving your awareness of what constitutes sexual harassment, and methods for preventing and responding. Help support your own safety and the safety of your colleagues with Premiere Education.

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