Sexual Harassment At Work Is Linked To Poor Mental Health

by JR Thorpe

Workplace sexual harassment has hit the news repeatedly over the past few months, from the allegations that recently came out against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, to Taylor Swift's successful suit against a DJ who she said groped her at a work event. The phenomenon of people abusing their positions of power to sexually harass others in the workplace, whether subordinate or not, is hardly a new one, but new science from Denmark has shown just how damaging sexual harassment can be for your mental health — depending on who's doing the harassing.

A survey of American women in 2015 found that 1 in 3 women had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, while in a study in the UK by the Everyday Sexism Project in 2015, 52 percent said they'd had it happen to them. And many of those incidents don't go anywhere near a court; a 2013 poll by YouGov and HuffPost found that 75 percent of the people who'd experienced workplace sexual harassment hadn't come forward about it. Victims often don't think they'll be believed, or fear the backlash attached to accusing somebody with more power or potential resources in a professional space. But those who experience it, whether they do or don't report, may be at risk of serious mental health consequences, and this new research has looked closely at why.

The Different Types Of Workplace Sexual Harassment

The new data comes from Denmark, one of the Nordic countries with a high reputation for gender equality. In the workplace, however, it seems that things aren't as equal as they might appear. The new study, published in BMC Public Health, looked at 7603 employees from 1041 Danish companies, and endeavored to find out how many had been sexually harassed at work, who had harassed them, and how that had affected their mental health, specifically their tendency to develop clinical depression.

2.4 percent of the employees in the study (169 women and 11 men) reported being harassed by clients or customers, while 1 percent (49 women and 31 men) were harassed by colleagues. It's not certain why such a low number was reported in this voluntary survey, as Denmark has one of the highest rates of sexual harassment in Europe —people may simply not have been willing to disclose what was happening to them. When the scientists looked at how those numbers correlated with risk of depression, they found that harassment of any kind is bad news, but that harassment from your workplace colleagues, subordinate, or boss is linked with worse outcomes than harassment from clients.

Employees who'd been harassed by clients or customers scored on average 2.05 points higher on the Major Depression Inventory scale (which is self-reporting and used for depression diagnoses) than employees who'd never been harassed. But those employees who'd experienced workplace harassment from bosses or colleagues scored 2.45 points higher than them: a total of 4.45 points more than employees with no harassment at all. The Major Depression Inventory counts any score over 30 as major depression, so this difference matters a lot.

Put in simpler terms, there seems to be a link, according to this data, between serious depression and workplace harassment from your co-workers or other people at your job — more of a link than exists with harassment from a client or customer. The researchers behind the data say this matters because often, sexual harassment in the workplace is treated as identical, no matter who's perpetrating it, when it's clear that different kinds have different implications.

This study has many limitations, as a critique from the NHS points out. For one, it's all based on self-reported incidents, both of harassment and of depressive symptoms; for another, it only does one questionnaire about depressive symptoms, so it can't tell when the depressive symptoms came about with respect to the harassment; and the Major Depression Inventory Scale isn't actually a diagnosis, just a tool. It simply points to a link between colleague harassment and depression, not a causal relationship, which is likely mediated by a lot of other factors, like previous psychological issues, precise circumstances, power dynamics, and other elements. It's not the first time that sexual harassment has been linked to mental health difficulties, though; it's been on the radar since at least 1994, when a phone survey of 3,006 US women revealed a link between experiencing sexual harassment and higher incidences of depression and PTSD. A 1997 study of high school students suggested a link between sexual harassment and higher risk of suicide, and the Everyday Sexism Project in 2016 commented on the link between sexual harassment and psychological "distress" in women.

Why Harassment By Colleagues & Bosses Could Be So Damaging

Why might harassment in the workplace be linked to worse mental health outcomes if it comes from those who work alongside you? Part of it may be proximity and shared working space; while you may be able to avoid a client (by moving away from the service area, passing the account on to another person, or some similar action), the people who you see every day in your workplace environment are often out of your control. Another area of research suggests part of an answer: rudeness and incivility in a workplace, it turns out, seriously damage performance and work environment.

Two recent studies have shown that just being rude to your coworkers, subordinates or boss, creates toxicity. One, involving 24 Israeli medical teams, found that those exposed to rudeness were significantly less likely to perform life-saving procedures effectively or have good performance than those with a civil work environment. Another, published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, found that people who encountered rudeness at work tended to be extremely embarrassed (particularly if the perpetrator was more powerful than them), get stressed and isolated, and feel much less secure in their position. And that's just somebody being a bit less civil than usual; even without the extreme discomfort of sexual harassment, people's ability to flourish in workplaces goes downhill rapidly when others don't treat them with respect.

The effects of sexual harassment in the workplace can go beyond psychological distress, particularly for women. In a study published in Gender & Society in 2017, researchers found that the experience of sexual harassment by women "increases financial stress, largely by precipitating job change, and can significantly alter women’s career attainment." Not only is harassment making us more prone to mental health issues, it's making us poorer and less successful.

If you believe you've experienced sexual harassment (including one-off comments, "banter," or even compliments), knowing what to do next is hard. Choosing what to do about the issue, whether it's talking to the perpetrator, involving management and HR or going higher up, can be challenging. If you don't know where to turn, the National Association of Working Women, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the U.S. Department of Labor Women's Bureau and other experts have sexual harassment helplines to give you advice on your legal standing and your best options. And it's important, particularly in light of this new evidence, not to dismiss what's happening to you as just "something that happens to everybody" or "not a big deal." It's a big psychological burden, and you do not deserve to carry it.

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit