Workplace sexual harassment could increase suicide risk

Woman looks out her office window. Image by Freepik
Woman looks out her office window. Image by Freepik

The “MeToo” movement has been one of the most successful campaigns highlighting sexual harassment in the workplace. It was able to shine a spotlight on something that happens too often in workplaces but is hardly addressed or spoken openly and truthfully about. There have been several studies that have looked at the impact of workplace sexual harassment on mental health and physical wellbeing, but there isn’t much research that’s looked into how it impacts suicidal behaviour. 

 The government’s Code of Good Practice on Sexual Harassment describes sexual harassment as any form of unwanted conduct of a sexual nature. The document also outlines the different forms of sexual harassment which include:

- Physical conduct (unwanted touching or physical contact)

- Verbal conduct (catcalling, unwanted flirting, jokes referring to sexual acts/orientation, inappropriate questions about one’s sex life, asking for sexual favours)

- Non-verbal contact (unwanted sexual gestures, indecent exposure).

- Quid pro Quo (when a senior influences employment and advancement conditions in exchange for sexual favours). 

 A small-sample survey (from 2018) of 1000 South Africans done by research agency Columinate reported that about 30% of women and 18% of men said that they have been victims of unwanted sexual advances in the workplace. 26% of the women reported that they experienced sexual harassment from a superior, and 20% of men said they experienced it from their subordinates. 

Impact of Sexual Harassment on Suicide

A new study by researchers from Stockholm University published in the British Medical Journal analysed the impact that workplace sexual harassment might have on suicidal behaviour. 

Researchers analysed the data of 86 451 men and women of working age across numerous occupations from the Swedish Work Environment Survey (SWES) done between 1995 and 2013. Part of the survey included questions related to sexual harassment in the workplace and of the 86 451, approximately 85 205 people had valid data on sexual harassment, age and follow-up time. 

Workplace sexual harassment may represent an important risk factor for suicidal behaviour

About 4,8% of the workers reported that they had been exposed to sexual harassment during the previous 12 months. The people most likely to be exposed to this were younger, divorced, single and in high strain jobs with a low pay. 

“We believe no workplace can be considered safe unless it is free of harassment, and this issue cannot be sidelined any longer,” the study authors said in a statement.

From the analysis of this data, the study concluded that being exposed to workplace sexual harassment was linked to a 2,82 times higher risk of suicide and a 1,59 times higher risk of attempted suicide. They added that these results might be a lot higher because of the different ways that people interpret what constitutes sexual harassment which often results in underreporting. 

More research needed 

“All in all, this study supports a prospective association between workplace sexual harassment and suicidal behaviour,” the study concludes. 

“This suggests that workplace interventions focusing on the social work environment and behaviours could contribute to a decreased burden of suicide.” 

The authors noted that more research is needed to determine the causality and mechanisms that can explain the association. 

Read the full study here

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