‘I guess my tagline could be ‘I’m passionate about helping nurses to have those difficult conversations,’ laughs nurse Simone Sheridan, about her diverse roles as sexual health nurse consultant at Austin Health and lead nurse advocate on Royal Melbourne Hospital’s Family Safety Team.
Her role at Royal Melbourne involves educating nurses and other healthcare professionals in how to recognise and support patients experiencing family violence. At the Austin, Simone has conversations with patients whose treatment or condition has affected their sexual health or function – such as cancer survivors and people with spinal injuries.
Simone is deeply passionate about social justice within nursing – and increasingly her advocacy has turned towards nurses themselves.
In 2019 when the ripples of the #MeToo movement spread beyond the acting industry and women everywhere began to recognise their own experience of workplace sexual harassment and assault in actors’ stories, Simone spoke out about the sexual harassment within nursing.
In an article written with her friend Ailsa Wild, Simone wrote about being a graduate nurse and a patient grabbing her and threatening sexual assault. Her supervisors’ response was that ‘he’s just like that’ and ‘just ignore it’. Simone wrote about her nurse cousin’s experience of sexual harassment, and of speaking with colleagues who confirmed that ‘everyone has multiple #MeToo stories’.
‘In this predominantly female workforce, there is an insidious culture, an unspoken expectation that we will quietly put up with being treated this way,’ Simone wrote.
‘We brush things off. We take a joke. We certainly don’t argue with patients.’
‘We keep the peace and provide patient-centred care. It means we don’t identify the sexual violence directed at us. We don’t deal with how it affects us.’
Simone will speak about the psychological impacts of sexual harassment and assault within the female-dominated professions of nursing, midwifery and personal care work at the ANMF (Vic Branch) Psychological Hazards in Healthcare Conference on 6 August.
She will also speak about the role she adopted during the first and second wave of COVID-19 outbreaks in Victoria in 2020. In preparation for an influx of COVID-19 patients, Simone had refreshed her critical care skills but was needed instead to support the hundreds of nurses and other staff at the Royal Melbourne Hospital who were isolating, either because they had COVID-19 or were furloughed.
Initially, the team consisted of staff redeployed from other roles, Simone, the director of nursing research and an infectious diseases doctor, making calls to the staff to ask after their wellbeing, find out what they needed and ensure they had the information they required about the COVID-19 isolation period.
Between 1 July and 31 August 2020, 262 cases of COVID-19 were identified among Royal Melbourne Hospital staff.
‘Having a background in having difficult conversations set me up for being able to support staff who were suddenly in an unfamiliar, unprecedented situation,’ Simone said.
‘And the conversations we were having with staff were tricky. People were at home or in a hotel room and were often in a difficult situation having found out they were a close contact of someone or had been diagnosed with COVID. ‘
‘There was a lot of stress and anxiety and worry around that and sometimes people were managing complex situations at home, whether that be very difficult physical dynamics, trying to be in a small house with their kids at the door crying because they couldn’t come in, or trying to work out what to do with the family and who was going to all the cooking while they were isolated in their room…’
As the number of COVID-19-affected staff grew, the team expanded and Simone’s role evolved to one of team leader, designing education for new team members.
‘On any day we had to make 65 plus calls… creating systems was like building a plane while it was in the air,’ Simone said.
Throughout the COVID-19 outbreaks, Simone was talking with her good friend, writer Ailsa Wild, who wrote the book The Care Factor based on these conversations.
In her address at the Psychological Hazards in Healthcare Conference, Simone will discuss the impact of the COVID-19 outbreaks on the psychological health of Royal Melbourne Hospital staff, who are still experiencing the after-effects to a greater or lesser degree.
Over Christmas and New Year, staff were exhausted, Simone said, but demand for care ramped up as elective surgery resumed, patients who had deferred medical care during lockdown needed treatment, and the emergency department filled again as Melburnians emerged from lockdown.
Nurses, midwives and personal care workers can receive free, independent and confidential counselling and support from the Nursing and Midwifery Health Program Victoria.