Publicity to office sexual harassment linked to an elevated danger of suicidal habits

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Workers who have been exposed to sexual harassment in the workplace are at higher risk of suicide and attempted suicide. This is the result of a study published today by the BMJ.

The authors say their results suggest that workplace interventions that focus on the social side of the work environment might help reduce suicide.

The "Me Too" movement has drawn a great deal of attention in recent years to work-related sexual harassment and its impact on businesses and society, but especially on individuals.

While previous research has found that workplace sexual harassment is linked to physical health symptoms, absence of illness, and poorer mental health such as mental distress, depression, and anxiety, little research has been done on its effects on suicidal behavior.

A team of researchers therefore wanted to find out how exposure to sexual harassment in the workplace is linked to suicidal behavior in a large number of Swedish workers.

The study included 85,205 men and women of working age in paid work who completed a questionnaire between 1995 and 2013 that included questions about exposure to work-related sexual harassment.

Workers were asked if they had been subjected to sexual harassment at work in the past 12 months, either from supervisors or colleagues, or from "other people" such as patients, customers, passengers and students.

Sexual harassment has been defined as "undesirable advances or offensive evidence of what is generally associated with sexual relations".

All suicides or attempted suicide by these workers over an average follow-up period of 13 years were determined from administrative registers.

Overall, 4.8% of employees reported sexual harassment in the workplace in the past 12 months: 1.9% of all men and 7.5% of all women. Those exposed were more likely to be younger, single, divorced, had poorly paid but heavily stressed jobs (high demands but little control) and were born outside of Europe.

A total of 125 people died of suicide and 816 attempted suicide during the follow-up period, giving a suicide rate of 0.1 per 1000 person-years and a suicide rate of 0.8 per 1000 person-years.

After taking socio-demographic factors into account, it was found that exposure to sexual harassment in the workplace is associated with a 2.82-fold higher risk of suicide and a 1.59-fold higher 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.

It was found that sexual harassment by others is more closely linked to suicide than sexual harassment by supervisors or coworkers

This is an observational study, so no cause can be established, and the authors suggest that their findings may have been undermined by underreporting sexual harassment due to different attitudes about an incident or some respondents, including the incidents they observed.

Still, they say that workplace sexual harassment "may be a major risk factor for suicidal behavior. This suggests that workplace interventions that focus on the social work environment and behavior may help reduce the burden of suicide."

Further research is needed to determine the causality and risk factors for sexual harassment in the workplace, as well as the mechanisms that explain the link between work-related sexual harassment and suicidal behavior.

This study highlights the need to view sexual harassment in the workplace as both an occupational hazard and a significant public health problem, US researchers say in a linked editorial.

Given that the most common approaches to prevention (sexual harassment training) and harm reduction (reporting or complaint procedures) have been shown to do more harm than good, new ways to prevent and combat sexual harassment in the workplace are urgently needed, they write .

"We believe that no workplace can be considered safe if it is not harassment-free, and this problem can no longer be ignored," they say.

"There are promising, evidence-based solutions that should be fully implemented and evaluated. Victims of sexual harassment should receive screening and mental health treatment to reduce the risk of future mental health problems and suicide," they conclude.

The Dynamics of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace in the United States

More information:
Work-related sexual harassment and risk of suicide and attempted suicide: prospective cohort study, BMJ (2020). DOI: 10.1136 / bmj.m2984

Provided by
British Medical Journal

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