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Sexual harassment at work could increase suicide risk

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People who have been subjected to work related sexual harassment are more than two times more likely to suicide and over 50 percent more likely to attempt suicide. No clear difference between men and women were established. These are the results of a new study, published in British Medical Journal.

Earlier research shows work-related sexual harassment is a risk factor for things like stress, increased sick absences, and mental health disorders like anxiety and depression, but there is far less knowledge about sexual harassment at work and suicidal behaviours. New research reveals a clear connection between having experienced sexual harassment from managers, colleagues and others (e.g. patients, customers, clients, passengers, or students) in the workplace and suicidal behaviours, particularly suicide itself.

Fredrik Bondestam, Director of the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research and PhD in Sociology, is of the researchers behind the study.

“Issues of sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence in the world of work need to be given clearer priority at all levels. The fact that we now have a broad empirical study showing strong covariation between suicide and exposure to sexual harassment in the world of work in Sweden adds another dimension. It shows the seriousness of the potential effects of not prioritizing both suicide prevention and systematic preventive work environment measures”, he says.

The study was based on a comparatively large group which approximated the working population of Sweden. Over 80,000 working-age Swedes completed a questionnaire on whether they had been subjected to sexual harassment on the job in the past year, with a follow up an average of 13 years later in the national register. Suicide and suicide attempts were identified from causes of death and registered hospital visits.

The result showed that people who had experienced sexual harassment at work were more than two times more likely to suicide, and over 50% more likely to attempt suicide. No clear difference between men and women could be established.

Linda Magnusson Hanson, associate professor at the Stress Research Institute, Department of Psychology at Stockholm University led the study. She highlights workplace interventions as a suggested measure, but also the need for more knowledge.

“This research strengthens the idea that a poor working environment can contribute to serious health problems. The research suggests that workplace interventions could help prevent suicide. More knowledge is needed about what types of organisational and workplace environments would help to prevent sexual harassment, and we cannot rule out that other factors could also clarify this connection”, she says.

Text by Susanna Young Håkansson

Further reading

The article "Work related sexual harassment and risk of suicide and suicide attempts: prospective cohort study" by Linda L Magnusson Hanson, Anna Nyberg, Ellenor Mittendorfer-Rutz, Fredrik Bondestam, and Ida EH Madsen was published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).

Read the editorial in the British Medical Journal on 2 September, Sexual harassment and suicide.