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How workplace sexual harassment is linked to women’s physical health

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Moya Crockett
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New research suggests that being sexually harassed at work doesn’t just affect our emotional wellbeing – it’s linked to physical health problems, too. 

If the last 12 months have shown us anything, it’s the fact that workplace sexual harassment can have a shattering effect on women’s emotional and mental wellbeing – not to mention on their professional success.

Of course, many women knew that already. But since the #MeToo movement caught fire this time last year, it’s become impossible for the world at large to ignore the fact that workplace sexual harassment shouldn’t be laughed off as a joke, or dismissed – as Donald Trump Jr once charmingly argued – as part and parcel of being a woman at work. It’s serious, and its consequences can be devastating.

A study published last year indicated there was a link between workplace sexual harassment and depression, and other research has shown that experiencing sexual harassment early in one’s career can precede long-term depressive symptoms. However, according to a major new study, it’s not just women’s mental health that can be affected by being sexually harassed at work.

The new research, published in the peer-reviewed journal JAMA Internal Medicine, showed that women who reported experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace had higher blood pressure than women who did not. It was high enough for them to be at risk of stroke, aneurysms, kidney disease, heart attacks and other forms of heart disease.

Workplace sexual harassment has been linked to depression 

Sexual harassment was also linked to higher levels of triglycerides in women. Triglycerides, a type of fat found in your blood, are a key risk factor for heart disease – a condition that kills more than twice as many women as breast cancer in the UK. 

As well as women who reported a history of workplace sexual harassment, the study looked at the health of women who said they had been sexually assaulted. It found that these women were three times more likely to experience depression, and twice as likely to have elevated anxiety than women who had not experienced sexual trauma.

Women in the study who had experienced either sexual assault or harassment were twice as likely to have sleep problems, including insomnia, than women who said they had never been assaulted or harassed.

Senior study author Rebecca Thurston, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in the US, told CNN that the study could not prove a causal link between sexual abuse and negative physical and mental health effects. 

But she said the results were intriguing – particularly the findings regarding the impact of workplace sexual harassment on women’s physical health. 

Workplace sexual harassment was linked to heightened blood pressure in women 

Of course, the results of this study do not mean that your physical health is guaranteed to suffer if you’ve ever been sexually harassed in the workplace. Studies like this should always be treated with caution, and not used to scaremonger: if you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, the last thing you need is the additional stress of health worries.

In general, you should seek advice from your GP if you’re concerned about mental or physical health issues such as insomnia, depression, anxiety or high blood pressure – regardless of whether or not you have experienced sexual harassment or assault.

But research of this kind is also important. In the last few weeks, we’ve been brutally reminded again of the world’s tendency to trivialise women’s stories of sexual assault: just look at Donald Trump’s mockery of Christine Blasey Ford. And according to recent research by law firm Slater & Gordon, almost four in 10 UK women have been sexually harassed at work in the last 12 months – yet 52% of those women said their employer hadn’t taken any action to combat the problem.

Clearly, despite the fact that conversations about sexual harassment and assault are happening more publicly than ever before, there remains a lot of work to be done before everyone takes the issue seriously. And if serious research looking at the health effects of sexual abuse can help us get to that point, we should welcome it. 

What to do if you’ve been sexually harassed in the workplace

Keep a diary recording when and where you were sexually harassed in the workplace  

Sexual harassment is a form of unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. The law defines sexual harassment as unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature which violates your dignity, makes you feel intimidated, degraded or humiliated, and/or creates a hostile or offensive environment.

This may include sexual comments or jokes, physical behaviour (including unwelcome sexual advances, touching and various forms of sexual assault), displaying pictures, photos or drawings of a sexual nature, and/or sending emails with a sexual content.

Crucially, you don’t need to have previously objected to a person’s behaviour for it to be considered unwanted. So if you’ve always put up with a co-worker’s sleazy behaviour, that doesn’t mean you don’t have the right to speak out now.

Alert your boss in writing if you are experiencing sexual harassment 

The Citizens’ Advice Bureau recommends taking the below steps to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace:

  • Tell your manager – put it in writing and keep a copy of the letter or email
  • Talk to your HR team or trade union – they’ll be able to give you advice
  • Collect evidence – keep a diary recording all of the times you’ve been harassed
  • Tell the police if you think you’re the victim of a crime – for example, if you’ve been physically attacked

If your colleague doesn’t stop harassing you, you could raise a formal grievance (complaint). All employers must have a grievance process, so you should ask your manager or HR team if this is something you would like to pursue.

For more advice on how to handle workplace sexual harassment, visit citizensadvice.org.uk.

Images: Getty Images / Pexels / Unsplash 

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Moya Crockett

Moya is Women’s Editor at stylist.co.uk, where she is currently overseeing the Visible Women campaign. As well as writing about inspiring women and feminism, she also covers subjects including careers, podcasts and politics. Carrying a tiny bottle of hot sauce on her person at all times is one of the many traits she shares with both Beyoncé and Hillary Clinton.

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