However, the union’s research – published in a report called It’s Never Ok – found that only one in five of those who said they had been sexually harassed had reported it to human resources or their managers.
“Staff should never have to face any kind of abuse, let alone sexually motivated insults and attacks”
Unison is now calling for a change in the law so that employers are responsible for protecting staff against third-party harassment.
Being subjected to offensive “banter” and suggestive gestures are regular occurrences for NHS staff, according to the report, which is based on findings from a survey of 8,000 healthcare workers.
The Unison survey found that 64% of the 700 survey respondents who said they had been harassed were victims of unwanted remarks and jokes in the workplace.
The survey suggested around half, 54%, of acts of sexual harassment were committed by the colleagues of respondents, while 42% were by patients.
In addition, nearly a third of those who had been sexually harassed said it had occurred on a regular basis and 12% weekly or even daily.
Meanwhile, 22% of healthcare staff who stated in the survey that they had been harassment said they had been sexually assaulted.
“Many nurses, cleaners and administrative workers feel they have to put up with appalling behaviour as nothing will be done”
Incidents described by survey respondents included three reports of rape and one involving threats to rape.
There were also accounts of one team member “upskirting” a colleague and then “accidentally” sending the video to another member of staff.
Overall, the report showed that 81% of those targeted were women and incidents mainly involved perpetrators who were older than their target, and often employed in more powerful roles.
The report also highlighted the psychological trauma experienced by the 700 healthcare staff who said they had suffered sexual harassment in the past year.
In total, 35% of respondents said the harassment they had experienced had affected their mental health and 55% ended up isolating themselves or avoiding colleagues and situations at work.
In addition, 40% of healthcare staff said they wanted to leave their job as a result of harassment, accoriding to the survey findings, which were presented this week at the Unison annual conference in Liverpool.
The survey results also showed that 28% of staff kept quiet about the harassment and only 20% reported it to their managers.
Among the reasons for not reporting incidents, 49% said they felt that nothing would be done if they did, 37% believed they would be dismissed as oversensitive and 24% feared the perpetrator would retaliate.
“The workplace which should be a harassment-free zone and employers who fail to act should be held to account”
In wake of the findings, Unison has called on the government for a “tougher approach” against employers who fail to tackle sexual harassment and wants to see a change in the law to hold employers responsible for protecting their staff against harassment from, for example, patients or those working for contractors.
In 2018 the Court of Appeal ruled that third-party harassment, by patients or contractors, was no longer covered by the Equality Act 2010. The union said it was campaigning for this legal protection to be reinstated.
Unison assistant general secretary, Christina McAnea, said: “Staff should never have to face any kind of abuse, let alone sexually motivated insults and attacks.
“Many nurses, cleaners and administrative workers feel they have to put up with appalling behaviour as nothing will be done,” she said.
“This is generally because the perpetrators are in a position of power – or believe they are untouchable,” she added.
“The workplace which should be a harassment-free zone and employers who fail to act should be held to account,” said Ms McAnea.