New study shows over 50% of Australian nursing students have been bullied or harassed during clinical placement

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It would be difficult to find someone in Australia who hasn’t heard about the #MeToo and “Time’s Up” campaigns against sexual harassment that started in Hollywood and are now spreading out into other lines of work, and bringing the topics of workplace harassment and bullying into the light. 

There is still a long way to go in Australia in the fight against workplace harassment. Large segments of Australia's workforce and institutions have been exposed in recent years for appalling rates of harassment and bullying, with common themes throughout: those affected feeling that they couldn't speak out, and those with the power to help having failed to act in an acceptable way.

Recent Victorian Trades Hall Council research found that more than 60% of women have experienced bullying, harassment or violence in the workplace, and the Australian Bureau of Statistics' Personal Safety Survey, released in early November 2017, shows startling increases in violence against women. 

In 2017 the Australian Human Rights Commission published a damning report into sexual harassment and assault of students at Australian universities, finding around half of all university students were sexually harassed on at least one occasion in 2016. This same research also found that the vast majority of students sexually assaulted or harassed in 2015 and 2016 did not make a formal complaint to their university.

In November 2017 Queensland Health achieved accreditation from White Ribbon Australia and became a White Ribbon Workplace. The accreditation program recognises workplaces that are taking active steps to stop abuses against women, be they physical, verbal, sexual, emotional, financial, spiritual or stalking. It supports workplaces to adapt organisational culture, policies and procedures, equipping staff with the knowledge and skills to address the issue of violence against women. The Queensland Government plays a critical role in ensuring its employees are protected at work, and Government-level White Ribbon accreditation demonstrates to the wider community that workplace violence, harassment and bullying is unacceptable. 

Previously the Special Taskforce on Domestic and Family Violence in Queensland published the landmark “Not Now, Not Ever: Putting an end to domestic and family violence in Queensland” report, with many recommendations directly affecting hospitals and clinical staff.

Bullying and harassment in nursing are unacceptable behaviours in the workplace, and there is a large body of evidence worldwide relating to this problem. However little of it focuses on the experiences of nursing students. A recent cross-sectional survey, "Australian nursing students’ experience of bullying and/or harassment during clinical placement" (available in full text in ClinicalKey for Nursing on CKN), investigated Australian undergraduate nursing students’ experiences of bullying and/or harassment during clinical placement. 

Mirroring the Australian Human Rights Commission research into universities, the results of this study paint a disturbing picture. Over 50% of the students reported that they had been bullied or harassed in the last 12 months, with younger students being more likely to suffer this behaviour. Perpetrators of bullying and harassment ranged from nursing staff, clinical facilitators and nursing management, to other student nurses, as well as patients. Almost three quarters of students reported that their experiences left them feeling anxious, and over half expressed feeling depressed. 

With one in three student nurses indicating that their experiences of bullying and harassment had negatively affected their standard of patient care, and almost half (46.9%) reconsidering nursing as their intended career, the findings of this study have implications for education providers, clinical institutions and the profession at large. White Ribbon Workplace accreditation is a massive step in the right direction, but there is still much to be done day-to-day to ensure that all employees are free from this behaviour.