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One in 12 NHS staff have faced harassment from the public

A new NHS England staff survey found that more than 58,000 NHS staff faced harassment from patients and other members of the public, increasing from 7.20% in 2019 to 8.48% in 2023

A new NHS England staff survey revealed high levels of discrimination towards NHS staff from the public in 2023. Of the 675,140 NHS staff who responded, more than 84,000 reported sexual assaults and harassment by patients, their relatives and other members of the public. Almost 26,000 staff (3.8%) also reported unwanted sexual behaviour from colleagues.

‘It’s very worrying that a significant proportion of staff, especially healthcare assistants and nursing and ambulance staff, report being the target of unwanted sexual behaviour from colleagues, patients, their families, and the public,’ said Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive at NHS Providers.

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In the last 5 years, the percentage of staff reporting harassment from patients, relatives and colleagues at work has reached a record high, increasing from 7.20% in 2019 to 8.48% in 2023.

While the survey showed staff feel more comfortable speaking up about experiences of harassment, bullying or abuse, with over half (51.86%) feeling empowered to raise incidents, Cordery said ‘it is encouraging, but this behaviour should not be happening at all’.

To address this issue, NHS launched its first ever sexual safety charter in September 2023, which commits to enforcing a zero-tolerance approach to any unwanted sexual behaviours in the workplace. It aims to appoint more than 300 domestic abuse and sexual violence leads to review and improve trust policies for reporting of sexual harassment.

As part of the charter, one trust implemented a ‘red card’ policy which sanctions patients and visitors who are violent or abusive towards staff. A yellow card represents the failure to stop inappropriate behaviour after a written warning, and if behaviour persists within a 12-month period, a red card status can be issued excluding a patient or visitor from treatment within the trust unless they need emergency care.

However, Cordery cautions that while more organisations have signed up to NHSE’s sexual safety charter, much more needs to be done to address this issue and keep staff safe. NHS still has a long way to go,’ said Cordery.