What should I do if I am sexually assaulted at work?BMJ 2023; 382 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.p2098 (Published 26 September 2023) Cite this as: BMJ 2023;382:p2098
Put yourself first
Becky Cox, co-founder of Surviving in Scrubs, says, “There is no right or wrong way to feel after being sexually assaulted. It’s normal to feel a range of emotions from anxiety to anger—even numbness. Working as doctors we anticipate the stress of long hours and high workloads, but we always expect to feel safe at work and never think we’ll be assaulted by a colleague.
“When that safety is taken away healthcare can be a lonely place. As medics many of us feel we have to push through, put our feelings to one side and carry on with patient care. We fear the impact on our careers and relationships with colleagues, repercussions, and isolation. But it’s important to put ourselves first and recognise the trauma we’ve been through. Reporting an assault and seeking support can be tough but it’s important to do what feels right for you.
“If a sexual assault or rape has just happened find somewhere that feels safe and, if you feel able to, contact someone you trust. You can also call the Rape Crisis national helpline on 0808 802 9999.
“If you want to report the assault to the police, try not to shower, bathe, brush your teeth, eat or drink, or change or wash your clothes. If you do change clothes, put everything you were wearing in a plastic bag.
“You can also go to a sexual assault referral centre. They will not force you to report to the police, but can record forensic evidence should you wish to in the future.
“There isn’t a unified system for reporting so the process will vary depending on your employer. You can speak to your clinical supervisor, department lead, freedom to speak up guardian, training lead, human resources, or the healthcare regulator for the profession of the perpetrator.”
Keep a record
Deeba Syed, senior legal officer, Rights of Women, says, “A sexual assault is any sexual touching done to you without your consent. That could include being groped, grabbed, smacked, or pinched, or being pressured, manipulated, or threatened into a sexual act.
“A sexual assault is never your fault, and it is the perpetrator who is responsible. Your employer does, however, have a legal responsibility to keep you safe and to safeguard you from it happening again.
“Keep a record. This should include a detailed factual description of what happened; the time, date, and location; and any possible witnesses. You’ll be able to remember what happened closest to the incident, so this is best done as soon as possible. Do this on your personal device, not a work device. Don’t worry if there weren’t any witnesses. Assaults often occur ‘behind closed doors,’ but that does not mean it didn’t happen.
“Tell someone you trust as soon as possible. This person can be a colleague, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be a close friend or partner. If you do decide to report what happened to your employer later, this person can give valuable ‘contemporaneous’ evidence about your reaction and description of what happened, even if they didn’t witness the assault.
“Remember, you are not alone. If you’re a woman in England or Wales, you can phone the Rights of Women’s sexual harassment at work free legal advice line on 020 7490 0152 for advice on your rights and options.
“Demand better. Work with your trade union to implement a policy on how your organisation will prevent sexual violence in future and seek specialist training so what happened to you does not happen to others.”
Report to the police
Mark Swindells, GMC assistant director for standards and guidance, says, “Sexual misconduct is always unacceptable and can have devastating impacts on individuals and patient safety.
“We’ve included a clear duty in the recently updated professional standards not to abuse, discriminate against, bully, or harass anyone.1 This includes sexual harassment. People who witness these behaviours should act, giving examples, and those in formal management or leadership roles must act when people speak up.
“Our ethical hub pages Identifying and tackling sexual misconduct2 contain resources and case studies, give advice on how our guidance applies, and contain links to advice helplines and advocacy services.
“If you’ve experienced sexual assault or other criminal activity we would encourage you to report it to the police. If you feel able to, you should also raise the matter with your manager, or an individual or organisation able to investigate.
“If you are a medical student, your medical school and placement provider have responsibilities in identifying and managing sexual misconduct, including having clear and accessible policies.
“If you or someone you know is a victim of any form of sexual misconduct by a doctor, you can raise a concern with us through our online form or by speaking to an adviser on 0161 923 6602.
“We also have a confidential helpline, 0161 923 6399, open 9 am to 5 pm, Monday to Friday, where you can access advice while remaining anonymous. Although our staff aren’t trained to provide legal or counselling support they can signpost you to other organisations.
“You can also find details of advocacy services3 if you need help to submit your concern to us. We take every concern raised about sexual misconduct seriously and will investigate where there is an indication that a doctor poses a risk to patients or public confidence.”
Talk about it if you can
Chelcie Jewitt, co-founder of Surviving in Scrubs, says, “If you are sexually assaulted at work, I’d encourage you to speak to someone. Please don’t suffer in silence or deal with the experience on your own. I am not saying that you need to report the incident formally, I appreciate that there may be fear of repercussions, but I’d urge you to talk about it if you can.
“There is no ‘right way’ to feel after being assaulted. You may not even be able to describe how you feel. Talking with others can, however, help you to make sense of your emotions and help you to process the trauma you’ve been through. Be aware that the effects of sexual assault can be long lasting and finding some support can be hugely beneficial to your mental health and wellbeing after the incident.
“You may find that you are able to talk to a friend, a colleague, or your supervisor. Speaking to someone outside your environment can make it much easier to open up.
“Your local rape crisis centre will be able to offer support. A list of centres can be found at https://rapecrisis.org.uk/find-a-centre.
“The Survivors Trust (www.thesurvivorstrust.org) is a national charity that supports survivors of sexual assault and rape. Their website has a large information section and they run a helpline and livechat service.
“Victims Support offer a phone line, livechat, and details for local groups (www.victimsupport.org.uk/help-and-support/get-help).
“Galop (https://galop.org.uk/types-of-abuse/sexual-violence) offer support for information for LGBT+ survivors of sexual violence and have a helpline 0800 999 5428.
“The BMA offer counselling and peer support regardless of membership status (www.bma.org.uk/advice-and-support/your-wellbeing/wellbeing-support-services/counselling-and-peer-support-services). They can also offer advice related to employment on 0300 123 1233 and email@example.com.
“It is important to see your GP if you are struggling with your mental health, they will be able to refer onwards to talking therapies or trauma focused services depending on what is available in your area. You can also self-refer to Practitioner Health, an NHS service that supports NHS workers with their mental health.
“Our website (www.survivinginscrubs.co.uk) has more detailed information on support, informative blogs, and links to specialist support resources.
“Remember what happened is not your fault. Everyone responds differently to a traumatic event and whatever you feel is a completely valid response to what has happened.”