Sexual harassment from work colleagues causes more harm, study suggests

Such treatment by bosses, colleagues or even subordinates can cause clinical depression and long-term absence from work

Ian Johnston
Science Correspondent
Monday 25 September 2017 01:51 BST
Sexual harassment in the workplace can significantly increase the risk of clinical depression
Sexual harassment in the workplace can significantly increase the risk of clinical depression

Sexual harassment by work colleagues seems to have a greater impact on mental health than the same actions by clients or customers, according to a new study.

Researchers in Denmark found 1 per cent of more than 7,600 employees working for more than 1,000 different organisations were sexually harassed by a supervisor, colleague or a subordinate, while 2.4 per cent suffered the same treatment from someone else they dealt with at work.

Women were much more likely to face this treatment than men with 169 out of 4,116 – compared to just 11 out of 3,487 men – reporting sexual harassment by customers. Of those who said colleagues had done this to them, 48 were women and 31 were men.

A survey in the UK by the TUC last year found that two-thirds of 18 to 24-year-old women had suffered sexual harassment at work with a third subjected to unwelcome ‘jokes’ and one in four receiving sex-related comments about their body or clothes. One in four had been touched inappropriately and one in eight said someone had tried to kiss them.

In the Danish study, the effect on mental health was measured using the Major Depression Inventory (MDI), a questionnaire used to work out a score in which 20 indicates mild depression and 30 or more major depression.

Harassment by clients or customers increased the score by an average of 2.05 points, while this treatment at the hands of colleagues raised the score by 4.5 points.

One of the researchers, Dr Ida Madsen, of National Research Centre for the Working Environment in Denmark, said: “We were surprised to see the differences between the effects of harassment by clients or customers compared to harassment by other employees. This is not something that has been shown before.

"Previous research showed an increased risk of long-term sickness absence for employees exposed to sexual harassment by a colleague, supervisor or subordinate, but an increased risk was not always found in association with sexual harassment by clients or customers.”

She stressed that sexual harassment by clients or customers “has adverse consequences and should not be normalised or ignored”.

“In this study we found that sexual harassment from clients or customers, which is more prevalent than harassment from other employees, is associated with an increased level of depressive symptoms,” Dr Madsen said.

“This is important as some workplaces, for example in person-related work such as care work or social work, may have an attitude that dealing with sexual harassment by clients or customers is ‘part of the job’.”

Those working in the care sector were more likely to be sexually harassed by clients than those in other jobs, such as in education, services or industry; 152 out of 2,191 care workers in the study reported experiencing this.

Harassment by clients or customers did not increase the risk of clinical depression, but the researchers found there was a significantly higher risk of this serious form of mental illness if someone the person worked with was responsible.

The researchers cautioned that the number of individuals who reported sexual harassment in the study was relatively low, especially for men, so the results of the study might reflect women’s experiences.

They also said the study was based on individuals’ own recollections, so could be an under or over-estimate of the problem.

The research was described in a paper in the open-access journal, BMC Public Health.

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