Here’s how unwanted sexual advances can wreak havoc on your mind, body and career
Look at the person to your left. Now look at the person to your right.
Six in 10 American women voters say they’ve endured sexual harassment, according to a November Quinnipiac poll conducted soon after the ongoing national reckoning blossomed; among those women, 69% reported experiencing it at work, 45% on the street, 43% in social settings and 15% at home. Meanwhile, just over one in five American adults — including more than a third of women — say they’ve been subject to workplace sexual harassment, a November Marist poll found. Twenty-nine percent of Americans also say they’ve witnessed sex harassment on the job.
The short- and long-term effects of sexual harassment can be unexpected — and multifold. Here are the various ways in which unwanted sexual advances can wreak havoc on your mind, body and career:
Sex harassment is associated with a range of mental health conditions; for example, a Danish study of more than 7,600 employees last year linked workplace sexual harassment with depression. And sexual harassment doesn’t have to be physical to cause a psychological impact, a Norwegian study of high school students late last year suggested: Unwanted sexual attention, offensive sexual remarks and the showing of sexual images can negatively affect symptoms of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and negative body image, the co-authors said. A 2015 Department of Veteran Affairs-funded study also found one in five women Vietnam War veterans had post-traumatic stress disorder — related, in part, to sexual discrimination and harassment they’d experienced.
Meanwhile, companies’ failure to prevent sexual assault or provide a supportive response — termed “institutional betrayal” — can exacerbate the effects of trauma including anxiety, according to a 2013 study by psychologists Carly Parnitzke Smith and Jennifer Freyd. “These results suggest that institutions have the power to cause additional harm to assault survivors,” they wrote, suggesting that “sexual harassment would be a logical extension.”
Clinical psychologist and Yale University associate professor Joan Cook, whose work centers on treating trauma survivors, spoke last year with about 50 women — including lawyers, doctors, oceanographers, housekeepers, professors, EMTs, engineers and financial analysts — about their worst experiences with workplace bullying, incivility and harassment. Many of the women in her qualitative interview research, Cook told Moneyish, reported difficulty sleeping, difficulty concentrating, self-doubt, shame, depression, anxiety and diminished interest in activities they once enjoyed. Their experiences followed them to subsequent jobs: “It was seminal,” she said. “It was defining for them.”
The dose, duration and frequency with which these events occur also factor into their long-term effects, Cook said. “The more degrading, frightening and sometimes physically violent, and the more frequently it occurs over time,” she said, “the greater chance of you having sustained mental health effects.”
A growing body of research suggests sexual harassment can also take a physical or physiological toll: For example, one 2005 study in the Journal of Business and Psychology examined 1,500 university employees, finding sexual harassment and generalized workplace harassment were “related to increased odds of illness, injury, or assault.” And a 2015 Journal of Community Health study linked workplace harassment in the U.S. with a range of physical health outcomes, among them obesity, worse sleep and pain disorders.
University of Pittsburgh epidemiologist Rebecca Thurston, whose research focuses on midlife women’s health and cardiovascular disease risk, found in a recent study that trauma exposure can impact cardiovascular health. Thurston and her team surveyed 272 women aged 40 to 60 on their exposures to several traumatic events — among them unwanted sexual contact (22.1%) and physical or verbal workplace sexual harassment (19.5%) — and found those with three or more lifetime exposures had poorer blood vessel function than their less trauma-exposed counterparts.
Healthy blood vessels will flex and respond to accommodate blood flow. But the women with more traumatic exposures, Thurston told Moneyish, saw their vessels either stay the same or even constrict. This responsiveness is “one of the first manifestations of cardiovascular disease,” she added, noting heart disease is the leading cause of death among U.S. women.
It wasn’t that individual traumatic experiences alone were linked to cardiovascular risk, Thurston said: “It was more the compounding of multiple (ones).” The researchers couldn’t explain the association with demographic factors, traditional cardiovascular risk factors, anxiety and depression, childhood abuse or neglect, diet, exercise and physical activity, Thurston said, and the association was even more pronounced among poor sleepers.
We need to examine “not only what’s going on in people’s heads, but what’s going on in their social environments that may put them at risk,” Thurston said. “I just think practitioners need to think about intervening with both the mind and the body,” she added. “Addressing both of those pathways is going to be crucial.”
Sexual harassment, as renowned psychologist Louise Fitzgerald put it in a 1997 paper, “is costly in both organizational and human terms.” “Women who were harassed not only experienced more psychological problems but also reported higher levels of absenteeism, stronger turnover intentions, and spent more time thinking about leaving their jobs than women who had not been harassed,” she and her co-authors wrote.
Oklahoma State University sociologist Heather McLaughlin, observing that much of the existing literature focused on organizational costs of sexual harassment — e.g. employee turnover, absenteeism, retraining costs, settlements — set out to explore the economic impact on the harassment targets themselves. McLaughlin and her fellow researchers, pairing in-depth interviews with Youth Development Study longitudinal survey data, found that “sexual harassment increases financial stress, largely by precipitating job change, and can significantly alter women’s career attainment.”
Through this two-pronged approach, McLaughlin’s team established through survey data that sexual harassment at ages 29 to 30 heightened women’s financial stress (defined as stress over meeting financial obligations in the past year) during their early 30s. They chalked up about 35% of that effect to job change. The 19 interviews, meanwhile, revealed women were quitting their jobs to avoid harassers or out of disappointment with their organization’s response. Women also pursued lower-paying careers in which they thought harassment was less likely, and saw their careers stall over an unwillingness to engage in a misogynistic work culture.
One woman identified as Lisa, for example, told the researchers: “I had one month off. I quit, and I didn’t have a job. That’s it, I’m outta here. I’ll eat rice and live in the dark if I have to.” “Enough of them said ‘enough,’” McLaughlin told Moneyish, “essentially saying, ‘It doesn’t matter what kind of effect this has on my career … I just need to get out of this harassing environment.”
Employers must establish clear, transparent sexual harassment policies and procedures that allow workers to report violations without fearing retaliation, McLaughlin said. “For those who did come forward, some ended up quitting anyway because they were really disappointed about their employer’s response,” she added. “Even though the harassment itself was difficult for them, they were just as upset by the way their employers handled it.”
“How can people problem-solve or engage in their jobs if their stomachs are in knots? It makes total sense that it would outstrip anyone’s capacity and job performance,” said Cook, the Yale psychologist. “It’s just a no-brainer for companies to invest in these issues.”
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