Suicide

Does Sexual Harassment Raise the Risk of Suicide?

New research shows the outcomes when sexual boundaries are violated.

Posted Nov 01, 2020

Photo by Mihai Surdu on Unsplash
The "Me Too" movement has brought a lot of attention to sexual harassment.
Source: Photo by Mihai Surdu on Unsplash

The #MeToo movement has brought a lot of attention to sexual harassment in recent years and the impact it can have on businesses and society, but most importantly on individuals.

While previous research has found that sexual harassment in the workplace is linked to physical health symptoms, sickness absence, and poorer mental health, such as psychological distress, depression, and anxiety, little research has been conducted on its impact on suicidal behavior. A new study published by The BMJ found that workers who have been exposed to sexual harassment—"undesirable advances or offensive references to what is generally associated with sexual relations" in their workplace—are at greater risk of suicide and attempting suicide.

A team of Swedish researchers decided no workplace can be considered safe unless it’s free of harassment and that this issue couldn’t be sidelined any longer. They set out to determine how exposure to workplace sexual harassment is associated with suicidal behavior in a large population of Swedish workers. The study was based on a Swedish Work Environment Survey database of 85,205 men and women of working age who completed a questionnaire about work-related sexual harassment between 1995 and 2013.

Workers were asked if they had been subjected to sexual harassment in their workplace in the past 12 months either from superiors or fellow workers or from "other people"—patients, clients, passengers, and students. Any suicides or suicide attempts by these workers over an average follow-up period of 13 years were identified from administrative registers. Overall, 4.8% of the workers reported workplace sexual harassment during the previous 12 months: 1.9% of all men and 7.5% of all women. Those exposed were more likely to be younger, single, divorced and in low paid but high strain jobs (high demands but low control), and born outside of Europe.

A total of 125 people died from suicide and 816 made a suicide attempt during the follow-up period, which translates to a rate of 0.1 suicides per 1000 person years and rate 0.8 attempted suicides per 1000 person years. After adjusting for demographic factors, exposure to workplace sexual harassment was found to be associated with a 2.82 times greater risk of suicide and 1.59 times greater risk of attempted suicide. The increased risk estimates remained significant after adjusting for health and work characteristics, and there were no significant differences in rates between the sexes.

Sexual harassment from others was found to be more strongly associated with suicide than sexual harassment from superiors or fellow workers. Still, the authors of the study say that workplace interventions focusing on the social work environment and behaviors could contribute to a decreased burden of suicide.

This study underscores the need to consider workplace sexual harassment as both an occupational hazard and a significant public health problem, according to American researchers. They contend that new ways to prevent and address workplace sexual harassment are urgently needed. They also insist that victims of sexual harassment should receive mental health screening and treatment to mitigate risks for subsequent mental health concerns and suicidality.

Reach Out For Help

A 2018 CareerBuilder survey found that the majority of victims of sexual harassment continue to keep quiet. Of those who have been sexually harassed, 72% didn’t report the incident, and 54% didn’t confront the person responsible for the harassment. Workplace sexual harassment affects a victim's mental health and emotional well-being. It needs to be addressed in a sensitive, empathetic, and more emotionally aware manner.

If you are struggling with workplace sexual harassment (virtually or face-to-face), speak directly with the other person involved or bring the incident to the attention of your human resources officer or manager. If neither of these steps is feasible, there are a variety of external resources that offer legal and mental health support:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7 free and confidential support for people in distress. 800-273-8255.

Just answer.legal provides help with workplace harassment claims.

NavexGlobal offers sexual harassment training courses to organizations to educate their employees.

OperationsInc serves as an unbiased, third-party subject matter expert where employees can report incidents of sexual harassment.

Find a therapist through the Psychology Today Therapy Directory. 

References

Hanson, L. M., et al. (2020). Work related sexual harassment and risk of suicide attempts: prospective cohort study. BMJ. DOI.org/10.1136/bmj.m2984