Workplace sexual harassment and the effect on mental health - recognising and creating a healthy workplace

23 November 2017


Against a backdrop of increasing awareness of the importance of good mental health, allegations of workplace sexual harassment by those in positions of power come thick and fast, causing a serious headache for Mrs May and business leaders alike.

Here we explore the effect of workplace sexual harassment on mental health and how to look out for the signs of ill-health to develop a healthy and positive environment.

In January, the Prime Minister commissioned the Stevenson/Farmer Review (the Review) to explore how employers can support the mental health of their staff, to remain in and thrive at work. The Review explored ways in which poor mental health is exhibited at work; on the individual, their team and organisation, citing analysis by Deloitte which estimated the cost to employers as £33-42 billion per year.

The overarching vision of the Review is that within a decade, everyone will be employed in "Good Work". The Review explains the concept of Good Work as "autonomy, fair pay, work life balance and opportunities for progression and the absence of bullying and harassment".

Most of us are familiar with the first limb of the definition of sexual harassment under the Equality Act 2010; unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating someone's dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.

There is a second limb is designed to protect further against the use of power to harass: that because of a person's rejection of harassment, they are subject to retaliation.

The protection afforded is therefore intended to cover the whole spectrum from lewd looks and 'banter', to sending staff out to buy sex toys and ensuring a victim's career goes no further because they called it out.

The effect of poor mental health on our ability to work and performance in work is well documented. But what about the impact of sexual harassment on a person's mental health?

Sexual harassment is hard to spot and deal with. It can happen in private settings with no witnesses, in poor workplace cultures where peers perceive it to be the norm, or in plain sight when the perpetrator relies on the victim not wanting to disrupt the scene and make a fuss. 

A recent Danish study concluded that sexual harassment caused by colleagues was linked to higher levels of depressive symptoms than that from customers or clients. This is because a "power-perspective must be acknowledged", recognising it can be more difficult to report workplace sexual harassment for fear of job loss, retribution and no consequence for the perpetrator.

The Young Women's Trust commissioned a YouGov survey of 800 HR decision makers early in 2017. It found that one in eight large employers is aware of sexual harassment that has gone unreported. This chimes with the 2016 TUC study (in collaboration with everydaysexism) which found that 80% of women harassed by their boss / someone in authority said they did not report the incident to their employers.

Taken with the knowledge that some of those brave enough to report will only agree to their employer looking into it if their anonymity is agreed, this makes for a challenging problem. How to begin?

  1. Any culture change needs to be led from the top. Make a positive statement that harassment of any kind will not be tolerated, it should be reported and victims will be supported and protected.
  2. Make good on this assurance by training staff to understand what harassment is and how to avoid their behaviour tipping into this. Train managers to sensitively and fairly address complaints.
  3. Recognise that coming forward is an inherently complex and difficult thing to do. Coach managers in the basics of mental health first aid, so the health of their team is on their RADAR. In short hand this means:
    • R: Recognise the potential signs of mental distress: change in behaviour, weight, performance, irritability, withdrawal etc.
    • A: Acknowledge this; how can you help?
    • D: Dialogue: find a safe space and time to start a conversation to enable the person to open up. Listen. Ask what they want you to do.
    • A: Act on it. Do you need to seek specialist help? Don't try and solve it on your own.
    • R: Review: has it been resolved? No? Draw up a new plan together.

Much of the commentary around this topic has been about whether what society finds acceptable has changed. Sexual harassment has never been acceptable but in the past it was often accepted without being challenged. What is changing now is that more people are willing to speak up. Employers need to respond or risk the legal and PR consequences of continuing to accept the unacceptable.

This article first appeared on The Times' Brief Premium website, on 15 November 2017.

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