Reuters/Srdjan Zivulovic
The pain goes beyond the moment it happens.

Sexual harassment literally makes victims physically ill

By Leah Fessler

Up to 85% of American women say they’ve experienced sexual harassment at work, and a new study suggests that the impact of this harassment extends far beyond their careers.

The study, a survey from Ball State University, found that sexual harassment puts its victims at risk of psychological damage and even physical illness.

Published in the Journal of Community Health, it analyzes the relationship between workplace harassment and morbidity among a sample size of 17,524 American employed adults (72% of which hold regular day shifts). The respondents were about half women, half men. Data came from the 2010 National Health Interview Survey, which is a national civilian survey conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics of the CDC.

The prevalence of sexual harassment

Nearly one in 10 respondents reported being sexually harassed in their workplace within the past 12 months, though women, multi-racial individuals, and divorced or separated individuals were significantly more likely to say they’d experienced such discrimination.

Given 75% of the respondents were white, and women of color are less likely to be believed when they report sexual harassment, these results may not be fully representative. “It could be that some who were seriously harassed in the recent past had not worked in the past 12 months, a requirement for inclusion in our sample,” write the study’s authors.

The psychological impact of sexual harassment

Previous studies strongly associate the experience of workplace sexual harassment with increased anxiety, stress, depression, sleep problems, anger, burnout, concentration difficulties, and low self-esteem in victims.

In this survey, the influence of sexual harassment on victims’ mental health was equally profound: Individuals who had experienced sexual harassment in the past 12 months had statistically significantly higher odds of experiencing serious mental illnesses, disrupted sleep patterns (sleeping less than six hours per night), and psychological distress symptoms all or most of the time (including persistent sadness, nervousness, restlessness, hopelessness, and worthlessness).

“Workplace harassment can cause severe stress which can lead to unhealthy behaviors such as eating more junk food and smoking,” explains Jagdish Khubchandani, an associate professor of health science at Ball State University, and one of the study’s lead authors. “If the stress and unhealthy behavior continues, it can cause chronic diseases such as depression, anxiety, pain disorders, and poor metabolism. Eventually, workers may become so sick that they go on sick leave or don’t come to work.”

The physical impact of sexual harassment

As Khubchandani mentions, the negative impact of sexual harassment is not limited to mental health. In this study, those who had experienced sexual harassment in the past 12 months had statistically significantly higher odds of smoking more often than they had before (either every day or some days), loosing work days, spending more days in bed, perceiving their general health to have worsened, and experiencing work-family life imbalance.

What’s more, those who had experienced sexual harassment in the past 12 months had significantly higher odds of having experienced pain disorders within the past three months. These pain disorders included headaches, lower back pain, and neck pain, as well as the prevalence of ulcers.

Reflecting on why sexual harassment can have such prolonged health effects, Khubchandani tells Quartz that ”the continuation of stress, lack of control over the situation, and no support can cause a person to be fearful and intimidated to the extent that they get stress related [physical and psychological] symptoms.”

Awareness needs to spark action

Sexual harassment is just one form of sex-based discrimination handicapping women’s access to equal professional opportunities, and materially reducing such misogyny requires companies to take preventative and restorative action.

“Educating all employees about company policies is a must. Employees should also know how and where to report harassment,” explains Khubchandani, in light of his study’s findings. Federal and state regulations should be posted in the worksite regarding prevention of workplace harassment, he continued, referencing Title VII, the federal statute governing sexual harassment as a form of illegal sex-based discrimination at work.

Khubchandani also advocates for safe and supportive disclosure of harassment, and serious punishment and disciplinary action for perpetrators of harassment. “Otherwise, employees will not have faith and trust in management and the perpetrators will continue to harass and damage the career of others,” he tells Quartz. “Workplace harassment can be expensive from a health, safety, and legal standpoint and is highly preventable with good policy enforcement and education.”