Family violence common amongst health workers

3 July 2018 | Family violence | Research and clinical trials

The first study investigating domestic and family violence amongst female healthcare workers in Australia has found that almost half of them (45 per cent) has experienced family violence, including one in nine who had experienced abuse and violence by a partner during the previous 12 months.

The study, involving 471 Victorian female healthcare workers, found that one in eight women had been sexually assaulted by a partner since the age of 16.

Published in the journal BMC Women’s Health, the study is the first to show that domestic and family violence are common in the personal lives of Australian healthcare workers.

Lead researcher Elizabeth McLindon from the University of Melbourne and the Royal Women’s Hospital said the study had important implications, particularly as healthcare workers often provided front line support for patients experiencing domestic and family violence.

“Healthcare workers are increasingly required to identify and support women and children who have experienced family violence,” Ms McLindon said. “For some workers, it may result in them going the extra mile in supporting survivor patients, but for some women, it could also trigger personal trauma to hear stories of other people’s experiences of violence. Hospitals have an important role to play in supporting their healthcare workers to ensure their wellbeing is not negatively impacted by their day to day work. This may also improve the support provided to survivor patients.

“Hospitals should implement greater workplace supports that include workplace manager training to respond to disclosures from staff, special leave provision, staff counselling services, family violence training and online resources,” Ms McLindon said.

In response to the Royal Commission into Family Violence, Victoria is leading the country in supporting its healthcare workers who have experienced family violence. Health staff have access to 20 days of family violence leave and many hospitals across the state are implementing programs to better support staff who have experienced family violence. The Strengthening Hospital Responses to Family Violence program, led by the Royal Women’s Hospital, is being rolled out across 89 healthcare services and is focused on providing services and training for healthcare workers to support both staff and patients. 

Ms McLindon said the research also showed that violence occurred across a women’s lifetime with around one in four women experiencing family violence in childhood and almost one in eight experiencing both childhood violence and partner violence in adulthood.


Study co-author, Kelsey Hegarty, Director of the Centre of Family Violence Prevention at the Royal Women’s Hospital and Professor at the University of Melbourne said the study reinforced the reality that domestic and family violence affected all women in the community, even those with high education and financially secure employment.

“As women who experience violence are much more likely to experience depression and anxiety, self-harm and suicide attempts, sleeping and eating disorders, lower self-esteem and alcohol and other drugs misuse compared to women who live free from violence, it is crucial that healthcare staff are supported to have access to services that assist them in their experience of family violence,” Prof Hegarty said.

Some women also reported experiencing violence by other people in their family and by patients.

Sarah* is a nurse and has experienced violence across her lifetime, firstly at the hands of a relative as a child and later from former partners. She has gone through extensive therapy to help her process the violence she has experienced, but she is often reminded of the trauma when patients disclose their personal experience of violence to her.

“Having experienced violence and not knowing where to go for help at the time, I always make sure that patients are connected to services where they can receive additional supports.

“The impact of those disclosures on me personally vary from day to day. Having a brilliant manager who was a trained counsellor was a big support and ensured I had an opportunity to debrief. I was lucky and this is not necessarily standard practice across the healthcare sector. It is hugely important that employers provide training for managers, supports and processes to ensure those of us who have been affected by violence can best support our patients while keeping ourselves healthy.”


*Name has been changed

“It happens to clinicians too:” an Australian prevalence study of intimate partner and family violence against health professionals was published in the journal BMC Women’s Health. 471 female doctors, nurses, midwives and allied health professionals in an Australian tertiary hospital were surveyed for the study.

Ms McLindon works at the Royal Women’s Hospital and undertook this doctorate at the University of Melbourne, supervised by Professors Hegarty and Cathy Humphreys. Ms McLindon is a counsellor with the Women’s Centre Against Sexual Assault (CASA) House.  

The Women’s is hosting the annual State-wide Strengthening Hospital Responses to Family Violence Forum on 28 August. It will include a focus on Workplace Support Programs to assist staff who have experienced family violence. For bookings visit Eventbrite