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The Caring Support Blog

Addressing Sexual Harassment in Healthcare

June 19, 2024

With the goal of addressing sexual harassment and sexual assault, the #MeToo movement has emerged as a significant social movement. It originated with the use of the hashtag #MeToo on social media to demonstrate the prevalence of these issues and to provide a platform for survivors to share their experiences.

Since its conception in 2006 by activist Tarana Burke and its popularization as a social media hashtag in 2017, in the recent years, the #MeToo movement has sparked conversations about consent, power dynamics, and gender equality, and has led to increased awareness and advocacy for survivors of sexual misconduct. It has also prompted changes in policies and practices in various industries to address and prevent sexual harassment and assault.

Healthcare isn’t free from sexual harassment, affecting physicians and other healthcare workers, and is a widespread occurrence of sexual harassment within the healthcare industry, despite ongoing sexual harassment training and increased awareness. So, in this article, we aim to shed light on the nature of sexual harassment in healthcare, its impacts on victims, and the steps we can take to address this pressing issue.

What is Sexual Harassment?

A healthcare worker in distress beside a definition of sexual harassment in text.

Sexual harassment, as described by the Canadian Labour Code, refers to any unwelcome sexual behaviour that affects a person’s dignity and creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. This encompasses unwelcome remarks, gestures, or physical contact of a sexual nature that have the potential to make an individual feel uneasy or vulnerable to harm. The Canadian Labour Code aims to prevent and address such behaviour to ensure a safe and respectful workplace for all employees.

Forms of Sexual Harassment in Healthcare

The vulnerability of women, especially during residency, makes incidents of sexual harassment a particularly sensitive issue within the healthcare setting. This concerning issue can take different forms in the healthcare workplace, including:

These behaviours can occur between healthcare workers, between healthcare workers and patients/clients, or even between healthcare workers and the family members or visitors of patients/clients.

Who are the Victims of Sexual Harassment in Healthcare?

In a 2018 survey on healthcare professionals, it was shown that within the past three years, around 7% of doctors and 11% of nurses, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants have faced workplace sexual harassment. This highlights the significant prevalence of sexual harassment in healthcare settings. Usual victims of sexual harassment in healthcare include both female physicians, nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and other healthcare professionals, like administrative staff members and social support personnel.

However, this phenomenon isn’t limited only to female healthcare providers, and can also occur in male physicians and healthcare staff, indicating that this issue affects individuals across various roles in the healthcare industry. Other individuals who are susceptible to sexual harassment in healthcare include a wide range of groups, including:

It’s important to recognize that anyone in the healthcare setting can be a victim of sexual harassment, regardless of their role or position.

Impacts of Sexual Harassment to the Receiver

The impacts or consequences of sexual harassment in healthcare on the receiver are significant, encompassing both physical and mental health effects, as well as employment-related consequences for health workers who become victims of such undesirable experience.

Psychological Impact to Well-Being

The impacts of sexual harassment on the receiver can be devastating, both psychologically and physically. Victims of sexual violence or any act of unwanted sexual act often experience a range of negative emotions, such as the following:

These psychological impacts can have far-reaching consequences, affecting the victim’s overall well-being and their ability to provide high-quality patient care.

Physical Health Impact

In addition to the psychological toll, sexual harassment can also have direct physical health consequences for the victim. These may include:

The physical and emotional stress caused by sexual harassment can take a significant toll on the victim’s overall health and well-being.

Employment Impact

The impacts of sexual harassment can also extend to the victim’s professional life. Victims may experience:

These employment-related consequences can have long-lasting effects on the victim’s career and financial stability.

Tips on Addressing Sexual Harassment in Healthcare

To effectively address sexual harassment in the healthcare industry, we must take a comprehensive and proactive approach. Here are some key strategies:

A list summarizing the tips on addressing sexual harassment in healthcare.

Issue a policy on sexual harassment

A carefully planned and implemented policy on sexual harassment is important in healthcare. It helps prevent and address sexual harassment, creating a safe environment for all employees.

The Canadian labour standards on sexual harassment stipulate that it’s the employer’s responsibility to issue a policy on sexual harassment, completed after consultation with employees or their representatives. As such, healthcare organizations must develop a clear, comprehensive policy that defines sexual harassment, outlines reporting procedures, and specifies the consequences of perpetrators.

Demonstrate commitment through qualitative and quantitative assessments on the policy

Through ongoing assessments, organizations communicate their dedication to continuous improvement in policies, procedures, and organizational culture. This fosters trust and confidence among employees, reinforcing the message that addressing sexual harassment is an ongoing priority. This proactive step may be done through the following:

Show consistency in the enforcement of the policy

Consistently apply the policy and hold perpetrators accountable, regardless of their position or status within the organization. This act sends a clear message that all incidents of sexual harassment will be taken seriously and addressed appropriately. This can deter potential offenders and reinforce the accountability of all employees, including those in positions of authority.

When healthcare organizations consistently enforce policies against sexual harassment, they promote a culture of respect and accountability. As a result, a work environment is created that prioritizes the safety and well-being of all employees.

Trust more women and other vulnerable minorities to hold leadership positions

Ensuring better representation of women and other vulnerable minorities in leadership positions can significantly help address sexual harassment in healthcare by fostering a more inclusive and supportive organizational culture. When women and other vulnerable minorities hold leadership positions, it sets a positive example for the entire organization. It demonstrates that diversity and inclusion are valued, and it can inspire confidence and trust among employees.

Women and vulnerable minorities in leadership positions can also actively empower and support victims of sexual harassment, creating a culture of solidarity and providing mentorship and guidance to those who may be experiencing harassment.

Foster a safe workplace environment free of sexual harassment by partnering with Caring Support.

Fostering Safe Workplace Environment With Caring Support

Sexual harassment in the healthcare industry is a complex and deeply troubling issue that requires our immediate attention. Together, we can make healthcare better and more inclusive by raising awareness, implementing policies, and promoting respect and accountability.

At Caring Support, we’re dedicated to helping ensure that healthcare workplaces are safe spaces and free from experiences of sexual harassment. We believe that stakeholders in the healthcare industry, most notably healthcare organizations and healthcare-related organizations like Caring Support, have the responsibility to lead the way in addressing this critical issue and ensuring that everyone who enters our doors is treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.

Contact us today to learn more about how we can form a meaningful partnership in ensuring that safety and well-being are prioritized in your healthcare organization.

About The Author
Cam Adajar
Content Writer

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