He grabbed her arm with piercing, steel-grip fingers, looked into her eyes and said “I’m gonna get my piece of meat into you.” Simone Sheridan was a recent graduate nurse and it was a night shift. She’d been asked to attend to this particular patient many times that night, shifting his position and changing his incontinence pad.
Every time she walked by his bedside, he gripped her arm and said “I’m gonna get my piece of meat into you,” in a dark, hoarse voice. She told herself it was fine. It was his illness and she couldn’t let it impact her; it was her job after all.
Simone went home in the early morning with his words still echoing in her mind. The next day she told her supervisors. “Oh, yes, he’s just like that. It’s better to just ignore it,” they said. Nobody called it out for what it was. Not even Simone, until 13 years later.
In her powerful essay, ‘Not Our Job: A Nurse’s Story of Sexual Harassment’, published in the anthology #MeToo: Stories from the Australian movement, Simone called out this behaviour for what it is, sexual harassment. She named it, breaking an unspoken code between nurses to “just deal with it”.
The essay has now changed the terms of discussion in her workplaces, The Royal Melbourne Hospital and The Austin, where she works as a nurse educator. There has also been an industry response, with the Australian College of Nurses (ACN) initiating a task force into the sexual harassment of nurses, since the publication of her essay.
In this predominantly female workforce, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics more than 90 percent of Australian nurses are female, there is a silent expectation that nurses will just put up with being treated this way. “We’re supposed to brush things off, take a joke and provide patient-centred care,” Simone says. But it means that Australian nurses don’t identify the sexual harassment directed at them.
For some nurses, it hasn’t been until they have come into roles where they are supporting junior nurses, that they recognise the sexual harassment for what it is. “I didn’t have the language when I was a junior nurse to describe that behaviour as sexual harassment,” Simone says. “I support junior nurses now and their reports of sexual harassment is what drove me to write about this issue, as it’s been happening to people that I’m responsible and want to care for.”
Nurse Educator, Christine Quinn, has been a nurse for over 30 years and has experienced sexual harassment on a number of occasions. One Christmas in a busy emergency department, nurses carrying out treatment for a group of drunk male patients had to have police escorts. “The groping was out of control,” she says. “But it was considered normal at the time because they were drunk, and it was Christmas.”
“These incidents have diminished as I’ve gotten older,” Christine says. According to Christine and Simone, the biggest demographic that sexual harassment effects is junior nurses. “Junior nurses are particularly vulnerable as they are just establishing their professional identity and really want to fit in,” Christine says.
In a recent presentation Simone Sheridan gave on sexual harassment to a group of nursing students at Melbourne University, she did a live anonymous pole. The students had to fill out an online questionnaire about whether or not they had experienced sexual harassment as a student nurse on placement. Over 80 percent of them said they had. And these are just nursing students, who are yet to enter the profession.
Olivia Dazini, 25, a nurse working in aged care, says that sexual harassment occurs on almost a daily basis. “Inappropriate comments are verbalised all the time as well as sexual physical advances,” she says. Taylor Doblinger, 22, a nurse working in the hospital sector, relays similar experiences, “Old men always comment on how they want to take me home or say how lucky they are to have a nurse as good looking as me.”
There are many factors that make nurses particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment. Oftentimes, they are required to perform intimate and personal tasks. “Sometimes these tasks need to be done in private. Nurses are frequently alone and unable to defend themselves,” Christine says. Another major factor is that patient safety is a nurse’s prime directive. “It has been long ingrained into nurses that patients behave abnormally when they are sick and in pain and that we must tolerate this. The patient is priority,” Christine says.
If a nurse experiences sexual harassment from a colleague, there are processes that get followed through with HR. However, if they are harassed by a patient, the lines can be blurry. “There is not a general level of consistency across health care organisations as to how sexual harassment from a patient is dealt with,” Simone says. “So, what it often comes down to is the individual managers experience of this behaviour.”
In Christine’s role as a nurse educator, she has seen incidents where the sexual assault of junior nurses has been handled poorly by senior staff. “The junior nurse was told to “let it go” as it’s a part of expectations of the role,” she says. “This is unacceptable, as the nurse was intimidated into inaction and was with no ongoing support.”
This dismissal of sexual harassment can have a negative effect on nurses’ mental health too. “The problem is that the senior nursing staff are desensitised and cannot recognise the damage this causes to both the individual, and to the profession,” Christine says.
In the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation’s (ANMF) submission to the Human Rights Commission into Sexual Harassment, they noted that 28 per cent of nurses who participated in their survey had suffered a physical or psychological injury as a result of an episode of sexual violence. Some even said they ended up resigning or took random days off when too distressed to work. “It might seem like someone making an off-hand comment or gesture when you’re washing them is small, but the cumulative impact is really huge,” Taylor says.
Peak bodies in the nursing industry are aware that things need to change. Between the ANC’s taskforce and the ANMF’s submission to the enquiry into sexual harassment, there has been a shift in conversation. In their submission, the ANMF wrote “there needs to be significant cultural change – it must be acceptable to make a complaint and the complaint process should be effective, prompt and not expose the complainant to the risk of negative repercussions.”
Australian nurses are calling for change too. “We should be entitled to feel safe in our own workplaces,” Taylor says. Under Australia’s Model Laws, employers have an obligation to provide a safe workplace. Christine says best way ensure nurses are safe is a zero-tolerance policy. “There needs to be serious ramifications for this behaviour as it will persist until the consequences reflect the crime,” she says. Inthe final paragraphs of her essay, Simone admits that there is a lot to be fixed. However, she says, a place to start is acknowledging nurses’ experiences. “Australian nurses are being sexually harassed by our patients,” she writes.
“And it’s not a part of our job.”