The Challenge of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

The Challenge of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

By Dr Nicholas Argyle, Psychiatrist

The usual principles or values with which lawyers and doctors treat clients have become more essential for people who have experienced or are experiencing sexual harassment. Respect, clarity of process, confidentiality, and awareness of client vulnerability must all be strong considerations for ensuring the best possible case outcome.

This is, unfortunately, because sexual harassment has become extremely common and increasingly recognised in workplaces across Australia.

The Australian Human Rights’ Commission in Respect@Work reported one in three workers had experienced sexual harassment in the previous 5 years. Not only does this indicate major cultural problems in workplaces, but society at large. It is these and similar findings that have prompted calls for significant organisational change in elevating sexual harassment as a major workplace health and safety challenge.

The frequency of sexual harassment is an uncomfortable truth for many workplaces and communities across Australia. Necessary cultural change includes recognising and supporting victims. Organisations involved with responding to sexual harassment and protecting victims, particularly the police but also legal firms, are especially vulnerable to reputational damage if they are not seen to be protecting even their own staff.

The first step we can all take is to ensure our own behaviour at work is appropriate. The second is to promote a positive atmosphere of respect in our workplace with no tolerance of poor behaviour. The third for those of us in legal and medical roles is to improve our services to support and assess victims of sexual harassment.

For doctors and lawyers, awareness of their client’s cultural background can be critical in assessment as sexual behaviour, gender roles, and women’s rights vary so greatly across cultures.

For example, escaping from a society in which women have poor rights is one motivation for refugees leaving their home country. In a multi-cultural society like our own, with many recent migrants from all over the world, there is wide variation in what might be considered inappropriate behaviour in the workplace. The challenge we face is for one legal system to encompass different cultural expectations while at the same time moving our national psyche forward by raising expectations of respectful attitudes, to reduce sexual harassment, and to better support victims.

Those involved in treating sexual harassment victims or representing them on sexual harassment matters must also understand that sexual harassment appears in different forms or behaviours in a workplace; each with different consequences or individual impacts.

One type of sexual harassment is sexist harassment in which a victim’s gender is the subject of offensive or misogynist remarks and attitudes; any behavior that makes the workplace environment uncomfortable or threatening in a sexually hostile way, such as sexually offensive pictures or a culture of suggestive comments or jokes. Sexist harassment is most commonly found alongside other forms of workplace bullying, especially in industries that have been traditionally identified with one gender, such as building and construction or emergency services (police and fire rescue).

According to Safework Australia, sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature which makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated, where that reaction is reasonable in the circumstances. It can include inappropriate physical contact, staring or leering, intrusive questions about an individual’s private life or physical appearance, unwanted invitations to go out on dates, requests for sex, or sexually explicit emails, calls, text messages or online interactions.

Sexual harassment does not have to be directed specifically at an individual and can happen during working hours, at work-related activities such as training courses, conferences, trips and work-related social activities. It might come from other workers, supervisors or managers, or from customers and clients.

In some cases sexual harassment is accompanied by an expectation of sexual favours being linked to job advancement and rewards. Hollywood has, perhaps, provided the most publicised examples of such quid pro quo harassment. Sexual harassment has been described as one of the major barriers to job satisfaction and career success for women in many industries. At the severe end of the spectrum sexual harassment may progress to sexual assault.

The primary effects of sexual harassment are often seen within the workplace where victims take time off work and become less committed to their job. Lost productivity, poor team morale and high turnover can also become evident if workplace behaviour is left unchecked. Secondary effects are on the victim’s mental and physical health and personal relations. This is a different pattern to that seen in other crimes. Meanwhile, there are major reputational, legal and operational costs to an organisation that fails to enforce strict policies to address and prevent sexual harassment in their workplace.

The psychological damage done by sexual harassment in the workplace, which occurs in adulthood, is not the same as that seen after childhood sexual abuse which affects personality development. For example, childhood abuse is frequently found in the history of adults with Borderline Personality Disorder. For adults in a professional work environment, sexual harassment may lead to loss of self-esteem, self-confidence, and ability to tolerate stress. More common problems are anxiety, depression, poor sleep and increased physical illness.

In some circumstances, sexual harassment can lead to the symptom pattern of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which, like sexual harassment, has become more prominent in recent years. Originally PTSD was seen as occurring after experiencing or witnessing life-threatening events, with military combat being the obvious example. However, the same pattern of symptoms (e.g. intrusive memories, nightmares, heightened arousal with anxiety, insomnia, and avoidance behaviour) is seen in people who have experienced stresses which were clearly not life-threatening and there has been diagnostic creep as a result.

DSM5, the commonly used diagnostic classification, includes sexual violence or threats of this in the PTSD criteria. The prior edition, DSM4, did not. Whilst sexual harassment may not appear to be life-threatening, an individual’s sexual life is an extremely intimate aspect of their psychology and it cannot be underestimated how threatened a sexual harassment victim may feel. DSM5 also created a new diagnostic section of Trauma and Stress Related Disorders in recognition of how much trauma in general is now seen as a factor in mental illness.

Those at higher risk of sexual harassment predominantly come from minority groups or cohorts in our society, or young people, people living with disability, people with culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, the LGBTQI community, and women. Similarly, more vulnerable individuals such as those with prior histories of abuse will tend to have more damage resulting from sexual harassment in the workplace.

However, the precise attribution of percentage causality to prior abuse or personality is technically difficult because of complexity and lack of clear agreed theories in psychology. It is also a delicate process in that this may be seen as an attempt to blame the victim which can be extremely distressing for them. As a result, there has been a cultural shift to affording sexual harassment victims more protection and it is important that complaints’ procedures and legal processes do not retraumatise them. For example, complaints and legal processes addressing workplace sexual harassment matters should avoid, where possible, having victims repeating their story multiple times. This can be difficult to circumvent but, for the victim, such repetition may be re-traumatising to the extent that it causes further psychological damage or leads to disengagement.

The individual, cultural, organisational, medical, and legal complexities involved in sexual harassment matters call for expert opinions wherever relevant, particularly from medical professionals such as psychiatrists with wide experience in general adult psychiatry.  Ultimately, the best possible case outcome would be to eliminate sexual harassment altogether. That involves societal change, and that involves all of us.

Dr Nicholas Argyle is a highly-respected and qualified Consultant Psychiatrist with extensive experience and expertise in general adult psychiatry, psychosis, refugee and asylum seeker mental health, and personality, affective and anxiety disorders.