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Nurse reveals sexual harassment and whistleblowing ‘nightmare’

A nurse has warned that she has been “crushed and silenced” over a battle with the NHS and the nursing regulator to investigate claims that she was sexually harassed by a colleague at work.

Michelle Russell told Nursing Times of the “eight-year nightmare” she has endured since coming forward about her experiences and that she said had recently led her nursing career to come to an end.

“Knowing what’s happened to me is not going to make it easier for anybody else to speak out”

Michelle Russell

She has argued that “speaking up is not encouraged” in the NHS and that her case would discourage other nurses from coming forward about sexual harassment.

Ms Russell said: “Anybody who has been around me would be able to see the emotional impact of all of this on me.

“I’ve lost my job for highlighting a public safety concern.”

The national guardian for the NHS told Nursing Times sexual harassment was a “patient safety issue” and warned that staff continued to face difficulties when speaking out.

It comes as the latest NHS Staff Survey this month revealed that almost 4% of nurses and midwives had been the target of unwanted sexual behaviour in the workplace by another member of staff in the last 12 months.

Ms Russell first reported allegations that she had been sexually harassed by a male colleague to her managers at North East London NHS Foundation Trust (NELFT) in 2015.

Subsequent investigations by the trust concluded that sexual harassment did occur. However, a Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) fitness to practise (FtP) panel found last year that Ms Russell’s claims could not be proved.

Currently, the alleged perpetrator has a five-year caution against his name on the NMC register, after the same FtP panel found that he had sexually harassed a different member of staff at the trust.

The NMC later referred the panel’s decision on Ms Russell’s case to the Professional Standards Authority (PSA) on the grounds that it may not be sufficient to protect the public. However, the PSA this month announced that it would not overturn the ruling.

Speaking to Nursing Times, Ms Russell said she had lost her job as a nurse “trying to do the right thing”.

She said: “As women we deserve so much more.

“In any place as a woman, it should not be okay for sexual harassment and assault to happen.”

“I am being crushed and silenced”

Michelle Russell

Ms Russell had been working as a specialist nurse at NELFT when she began to experience alleged inappropriate behaviour and unwanted touching by a male colleague.

“I was scared of him – I can’t really explain how disgusting he made me feel,” she explained.

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Ms Russell first reported concerns to her manager in 2015, which eventually prompted an investigation by the trust.

The male nurse was briefly suspended while the investigation took place, however the trust found that the allegations were not upheld.

In that time, Ms Russell had to take time off work due to how much the alleged incidents had impacted her, and she was also referred to a local sexual assault support centre by her GP.

After a failed attempt to appeal the trust’s decision, Ms Russell decided to whistleblow, firstly by stating on television that she was a nurse who had been sexually harassed and then, in 2018, she held a sign outside parliament which said the same thing.

It was here where Dame Ruth May, England’s chief nursing officer (CNO) who was deputy CNO at the time, bumped into Ms Russell outside parliament.

This encounter triggered NHS England to conduct an independent review into NELFT’s original investigation into the allegations.

The review, seen by Nursing Times, concluded that the trust’s investigation was “catastrophically flawed” due to NELFT’s lack of understanding of its own sexual harassment policy.

It also found “a lack of impartiality” by managers towards Ms Russell’s allegations and “bias” towards believing the male nurse’s account of events instead of Ms Russell’s, despite there being “equally balanced evidence”.

The NHS England report and a suspension letter addressed to the male nurse, seen by Nursing Times, outlined two other allegations by relatives of patients, including inappropriate behaviour and touching, one of which was later withdrawn.

A third review, published in 2019 and commissioned by NELFT, re-investigated Ms Russell’s allegations.

It concluded that that there was sufficient evidence to show that the male nurse had behaved in an inappropriate manner, and it could reasonably be regarded as amounting to sexual harassment.

In a statement to Nursing Times, NELFT said it had taken the issues raised in the independent reviews “extremely seriously” and had put in new sexual safety policies at the organisation and improved sexual safety training.

The statement said: “Our investigation following the formal complaint raised in 2016 found that sexual harassment did occur and we have apologised for this, both privately and publicly, acknowledging the inadequacies in the handling of the complaint and the distress it has caused.”

The chair of NELFT sent a letter to Ms Russell in 2019, seen by Nursing Times, which acknowledged the findings of the independent re-investigation and promised to work with her to facilitate her return to work.

However, Ms Russell said that she was unable to return because her alleged harasser was still working in the same service.

The same year that NELFT promised to facilitate her return to work, Ms Russell went to the NMC headquarters in London and refused to leave the premises until the regulator reopened her case.

She had previously tried to bring the case to the NMC back in 2016 but the FtP screening team had closed it without further investigation.

“Despite the #MeToo movement, it is still so difficult to speak up about sexual assault and harassment at work”

Jayne Chidgey-Clark

Following severe delays, the NMC finally brought forward an FtP hearing against Ms Russell’s alleged harasser in summer 2023, four years after it reopened the case.

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By this time, two other members of staff at NELFT had made separate allegations against the male nurse involving inappropriate comments.

These three cases were heard together at the FtP hearing, where the NMC’s panel concluded that the charges in Ms Russell’s case were “not proved”.

The only proved allegations in the hearing were related to one of the two other staff members who raised concerns about the male nurse.

The NMC gave him a caution order for a period of five years, because the panel concluded that the male nurse’s misconduct was lower in the order of seriousness.

Ms Russell has criticised the NMC for not allowing NHS England’s investigation or the independent re-investigation to be used as evidence during the FtP hearing, which had both upheld her allegations and also showed that further allegations by relatives of patients had been made.

The NMC said it had sought legal advice as to whether it could put the reviews before the panel but decided it could not because the other allegations in these documents, relating to relatives of patients, were not supported by “direct evidence”.

The NMC subsequently referred the panel’s decision to the super regulator, the PSA, due to concerns that it would not be sufficient to protect the public, as the allegations were found “not proved”.

The PSA confirmed to Nursing Times this month that it would not appeal the panel’s decision.

A spokesperson for the PSA said: “We carefully considered the issues in this case, alongside information from the NMC.

“Our review did not identify issues that would meet the bar for us to appeal a case.

“While that is the decision we have reached in this case, we have and continue to appeal cases relating to sexual misconduct and discrimination and have been successful in overturning many of these decisions in the courts.”

In response, Ms Russell said she remained determined to highlight the behaviour of her alleged perpetrator, in the hope that it would protect other nurses in the future.

She said: “Throughout this eight-year nightmare, I have remained focused on public safety.

“The PSA decision following the NMC referring themselves is a clear example of how those who are there to protect the public have forgotten that focus.”

Ms Russell said the situation had now left her without employment.

After she had initially tried to launch an employment tribunal claim against NELFT, a settlement was reached for her to be seconded to NHS England and for her post at the trust to be filled.

Ms Russell said she “loved” her time at NHS England, where she was “performing at a national level”.

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However, the secondment came to an end last month.

“It was my birthday on the 5 February [and] on the 6 February my secondment ended, and I have no job,” said Ms Russell.

“I’ve had no coaching, no training [and] no support into further work.”

A spokesperson for NHS England told Nursing Times: “NHS England worked closely with Michelle and NELFT to ensure an independent investigation into this case, and we have supported the trust to learn and implement improvements.

“We have also offered significant personal support to Michelle over many years, including supporting her secondment to NHS England.”

The spokesperson added that NHS England had recently published a sexual safety charter and toolkit to support trusts to improve the handling of concerns about sexual harassment and domestic violence.

Ms Russell described her whistleblowing experience as “an absolute scandal”.

She said: “The long and short of it is that I don’t have a job now.

“I’ve been emotionally pulled through every hedge that you can be pulled through.

“I am being crushed and silenced.”

Ms Russell argued that her case would make other nurses in the same position “think very carefully” about whether whistleblowing was “the right thing to do”.

“Knowing what’s happened to me is not going to make it easier for anybody else to speak out,” she said.

“We all hear these things about whistleblowers across all sectors, but it is totally true.

“You can’t speak out with freedom, you just can’t. You will be silenced.”

Jayne Chidgey-Clark

In a statement to Nursing Times, the national guardian for the NHS, Dr Jayne Chidgey-Clark, said: “Despite the #MeToo movement, it is still so difficult to speak up about sexual assault and harassment at work.

“Anyone who does should be supported, listened to and it should be investigated as a matter of urgency, and nobody should face detriment for speaking up about these issues.

“In health, this is not only a worker wellbeing issue, but a patient safety one.”

The NMC’s chief executive and registrar, Andrea Sutcliffe, said: “I know it’s been an extremely difficult time for Ms Russell, and on behalf of the NMC, I’m sorry this case took too long.

“There’s no place for sexual misconduct in society, and we took the concerns Ms Russell raised with us very seriously.”

Andrea Sutcliffe

Ms Sutcliffe noted that the NMC had decided there was a case to answer, however the independent FtP panel that heard the case decided that the charges brought in relation to Ms Russell were “not proved”.

“Understandably that has been very distressing for Ms Russell,” she said.

Ms Sutcliffe added: “The PSA reviews all hearing outcomes, and in this case found no fundamental issues with the hearing, our case presentation or the panel’s decision.

“We respect the PSA’s decision, and the registrant is currently subject to a five-year caution order after the panel found some separate charges proved.”

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