Workplace Sexual Harassment Is a Public Health Issue

Erika Sabbath

By Erika Sabbath, Assistant Professor, Older Adults & Families and Health & Mental Health

Workplace sexual harassment has been all over the news lately, with allegations emerging against politicians, media personalities, and top executives. For every case like Matt Lauer or Harvey Weinstein, where a public accusation and outcry is quickly followed by a firing, there are tens of thousands of women whose stories, until recently, remained untold. After years of sexual harassment complaints being unreported, ignored, or quietly settled for large sums of money plus nondisclosure agreements (which prevent victims from discussing the harassment), the culture around discussing harassment has undergone a sea change, with the #metoo movement that followed the case against Weinstein.

Sexual harassment has been known to carry career consequences for women who experience it—many report that, after they make an accusation, they are “blackballed” within their industry and are unable to find work. But sexual harassment in the workplace has also been found to impact both physical and mental health of those harassed. Those who experience sexual harassment at work often experience depression, anxiety, and unhealthy coping behaviors like excessive drinking (Richman et al, 1999; Krieger et al, 2008; Rospenda et al, 2000) . The effects also extend to physical health; nurses and nurses’ aides who report being harassed at work are more likely to get injured at work, compared to their non-victimized colleagues (Sabbath et al, 2014).

We have likely only seen the tip of the iceberg on accusations of sexual harassment, misconduct, abuse, and assault in the workplace. Sadly, sexual harassment has been found to be an intractable problem; in fact, one study found that sexual harassment training actually worsens people’s perception that workplace harassment is a problem and makes men less likely to view inappropriate sexual behavior at work as wrong. As a society, we have a long way to go in terms of believing victims, holding perpetrators accountable, and changing organizational cultures that allow sexual harassment to arise.  Until we make such changes, victims will continue to be doubly punished when, in addition to the harassment itself, they experience its physical and mental health consequences.

This post from Sabbath also appeared in the most recent newsletter of Boston College Global Public Health.

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