For too long, sexual harassment in the workplace has been seen as a women's issue. More recent discussions, however, have shed light on the broader impact of sexual harassment and helped us view it as a workplace health and safety concern.

Understanding the Scope of the Problem

Since the #metoo movement took off in October 2017, women of all ages, across all industries, and from all walks of life have publicly shared their experiences of being sexually harassed or assaulted by work colleagues and superiors. And the numbers are staggering. An online survey by the non-profit organization Stop Street Harassment found that 81 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime, and 38 percent say they’ve been sexually harassed at their workplace.

This is unsurprising when you consider two factors. First, the many official (workplace get-togethers and meetings) and unofficial (social media) ways employees engage with one another. And, second, the different kinds of activities that constitute sexual harassment, including:

  • Unwanted touching or sexual comments
  • Asking for sex in exchange for something (e.g. job promotion)
  • Repeatedly asking for dates and refusing to take "no" for an answer
  • Posting or sharing sexual pictures (including online)
  • Making sexual jokes
  • Bullying based on sex or gender
  • Spreading sexual gossip or rumors

Those most at risk for sexual harassment and assault include low-wage and temporary workers, workers who don't have a strong command of the English language, immigrants, transgender women, and workers who are physically isolated (find out why Domestic Violence Is a Workplace Issue).

The Health and Safety Impacts of Sexual Harassment

Researchers have long reported the effects of sexual harassment on an employee's work, including increased absence, lower job satisfaction, career interruption, and lower earnings. Now, more studies are examining the effect sexual harassment has on employee health and safety.

Of survey respondents in the Stop Street Harassment study, 31 percent of women and 20 percent of men noted feeling anxious or depressed due to the harassment. A Danish study published in BMC Public Health found that exposure to sexual harassment (at work in particular) is associated with an increased level of depressive symptoms, both when the harassment comes from clients or customers and when it comes from supervisors, colleagues, or subordinates.

Sexual harassment can also take a serious toll on physical health. A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that women who experienced sexual harassment had significantly higher blood pressure levels than those who had not, putting them at risk for stroke, aneurysms, kidney disease, and heart attacks. Those who experienced harassment also had elevated triglyceride levels (a key risk factor for heart disease) and were twice as likely to have sleep problems such as insomnia. While the reasons for this haven’t yet been confirmed, it’s believed that being harassed prompts changes in stress hormone levels, which have a negative impact blood pressure, triglycerides, and sleep patterns.

Sexual Harassment Legislation

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion – and this includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other forms of verbal or physical sexual harassment. While offhand comments or teasing aren’t deemed illegal if they are isolated instances, they become so when the harassment is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile working environment or results in the victim being fired or demoted.

The OSHA general duty clause may also be applicable here. If the risk of physical violence and injury stemming from the sexual harassment is significant enough to be considered a recognized hazard, the employer is compelled to take action to minimize the risk.

How Employers Can Proactively Address the Issue

It’s no longer acceptable for employers to simply report incidences of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace – they must take action to prevent them.

The first step must be an assessment of the risk factors associated with sexual harassment and assault to identify the extent to which it may be an issue within the company (learn How to Improve the Health and Safety of Women in the Workplace).

Beyond the initial assessment, there are various steps employers can and should take to get ahead of sexual harassment issues and create a safe, healthy working environment for employees:

  • Develop and maintain anti-harassment policies and effectively communicate them to employees on a regular basis
  • Foster a culture of open communication to ensure employees are not afraid to come forward if they experience an issue
  • Foster a workplace culture that makes it clear that harassment of any kind is not tolerated and will be dealt with swiftly and decisively
  • Train supervisors on how to respond effectively to observed instances of sexual harassment
  • Move more women into supervisory and leadership roles to help change cultures of inequality and sexism that drive sexual harassment and violence
  • Provide training to ensure particularly vulnerable workers understand their employment rights

Final Thoughts

Sexual harassment is never acceptable – in or out of the workplace – and changing the conversation to acknowledge the fact that it is a health and safety issue is a critical step toward preventing it.

Research shows that sexual harassment has lasting mental and physical effects, and it’s time that organizations take proactive steps to ensure a safe and healthy work environment for every employee.