From celebrities to your middle-aged neighbor, it seems that everyone is sporting a tattoo these days. While in the past tattoos may be relegated to biker gangs and rebels, today they are becoming increasingly popular, and as such are becoming more accepted. According to a Harris poll from 2015, nearly one-third of Americans sport a tattoo, and when it comes to Millennials, this number increases to over half. As society warms up to the ink, are workplaces, and in particular hospitals, following the trend as well? Can nurses have visible tattoos?
Nurses have a long history of strict dress codes. In the past nurses were required to wear specific colors based on their graduate level, were required to wear nursing caps and were even forced to wear hospital issued capes when traveling to and from work. Some employers went as far as to put restrictions on nurse hairstyles. Nurses were even once required to wear scrub dresses. Beginning in the 1970s hospitals changed their rules, and the uniform was phased out, allowing nurses to wear uniforms in their choice of color and style, even departing from the common Carribean blue scrubs.
With this embracement of individual style, have hospitals and patients also embraced tattoos on their nurses? A study was done on perceptions of patients, students and faculty on a nurse’s outward appearance.
In this study participants were shown pictures of nurses and were asked to rate these nurses on many factors. All groups rated the nurses with visible tattoos in this study as the least knowledgeable, skilled, and caring. This study, however, calls into question people’s underlying prejudices. Skin color, age, or gender may have also affected people’s opinions.
While first impressions are essential every nurse knows that the way you treat people, your kindness, caring, and compassion are what your patients will remember. They are the foundation of what being a nurse means. While their first impression may be poor, the evidence of your expertise and skills will shine through. Many people have biases and prejudice for skin color, gender, body weight, and more, but if you are a good nurse, these prejudices will fall away.
However, what about institutional policy? For the most part, nurses have some flexibility when it comes to visible tattoos. Many hospitals have strict dress codes for their staff, including visible tattoos. There have been some critical legal cases, however, that put those rules into question.
In 2011 a hospital in Ottawa, Canada lost a court case in which they tried to do this very thing. The hospital attempted to impose a dress code where the staff was advised to cover up any visible tattoos and remove any piercings beyond “minimal and conservative piercings.” The hospital argued that visible tattoos and body piercings may be disturbing to patients who were fighting for their lives. The hospital argued that “freedom of expression for employees must take a back seat in a healthcare setting when people are fighting for their lives.”
The claims were very quickly struck down by an independent arbitrator who found no evidence that tattoos or a nose ring could affect patient health. He famously states “Anyone who has taken a stroll on a summer day knows that tattoos are no longer confined to sailors, stevedores, and strippers.” He also compared this case to another in the 1970s where firefighters fought a ban from sporting the then-controversial large sideburns.
To Cover or Not to Cover
Legality and public opinion aside, if you have a visible tattoo, you will need to decide if you will cover your tattoo or not. This decision should not only consider institutional policy, but your patient population and they type of tattoo as well.
Are you working in a busy ER or at a nursing home? At a drug outreach program or on the pediatric ward? The type of patient population should be considered if you decide to show your ink with pride.
While some people such as parents of young children or older adults may not look favorably on your full sleeve, other populations may feel more comfortable with a nurse who has visible tattoos. Many nurses have found a difference in their relationship with patients who sport tattoos themselves when their tattoos have been made visible. These patients may feel that their nurse is more like them, or that the nurse may be less judgmental about their lives and decisions. Tattoos, with the right patient population, and in the right circumstances can be therapeutic.
Type of Tattoo
While visible tattoos may be acceptable in certain situations, certain types of tattoos will never be appropriate. Tattoos that are racist, sexually explicit, involve gang symbols or depict supremacist or extremist groups are never acceptable in a professional situation. Also, be sure any images that encourage drug use or include expletives are not visible.
Tattoos can be easily covered with clothing or hair or with specialty makeup designed for this application. If you are unsure about a tattoo check with your supervisor or human resources personnel before displaying your ink to your patients.
Tattoos are becoming increasingly popular, and with that popularity are becoming more accepted by the patient population. As tattoos become more mainstream, nurses can feel free to expose their body art for all to see and celebrate diversity in nursing. With an appropriate tattoo, and with the right patient population, wearing a visible tattoo is not only acceptable but can even help you build those therapeutic relationships with your patients.