Addressing the Epidemic: Sexual Harassment as a Public Health Emergency | Mercer

Addressing the Epidemic: Sexual Harassment as a Public Health Emergency

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Addressing the Epidemic: Sexual Harassment as a Public Health Emergency
Calendar31 January 2019

Historically, dealing with sexual harassment has been viewed through a risk mitigation lens, resulting in the cutting of checks and the signing of NDAs. Once money changes hand and papers are signed, too many organizations think of the matter as closed.

Companies that settle these suits rarely examine the root causation, nor do they dig deeper to address female employees’ ongoing needs after the experiences of sexual harassment or looking for longer-term ramifications. The desire to believe that it is 'just one isolated instance' is pervasive and frankly hopeful.

Sexual harassment is an epidemic that impacts at least one quarter of working women in the US. It is proven to not only be psychologically detrimental, but also to have an actual impact on the health of victims: including stress, depression and high blood pressure.

When any health threat impacts one quarter of the population, public health experts will generally term that threat as an epidemic. Particularly if that threat is allowed to thrive in a neglected environment—such as a company that has not addressed the internal factors that enable a culture of sexual harassment and assault to flourish. If one quarter of the US population were exposed to a dangerous chemical or virus, we would develop an immediate response to limit exposure and ensure treatment, rather than issue NDAs.

We believe the global epidemic of sexual harassment can only be remedied if it is understood through a public health lens.

Like malaria or influenza, sexual harassment is a pathogen that thrives in certain environments and infects some hosts more than others. The virulence of the pathogen can be measured using a validated metric like the Likelihood to Sexually Harass (LSH) scale.

From an organizational perspective, the environment is the one area that can be controlled for. That is where disease specialists begin—and it’s where you should begin too, when you are thinking about prevention.

Here are a few risk factors to keep in mind:

  • A homogeneous workforce (one with little diversity)
  • Asymmetric power structures (differences in pay and in job levels)
  • Decentralized offices (no oversight)
  • Younger women and women from underserved or minority populations in your organization (more vulnerable to abuse)
  • Women who are not given adequate voice in their own health and wellness

All of these factors increase the likelihood of a hostile/toxic work environment, and need to be examined closely. As with any epidemic, the priority is not only diagnosis, but prevention.

It is our view that the vaccination with which to inoculate the population against sexual harassment, and to allow us to better hear the voices of our female employees as they express their needs is empathy. Recent research demonstrates that, when women are able to share their experiences of harassment, both men and women exhibit increased empathy and also lower scores on the Likelihood to Sexually Harass (LSH) scale.

Key ways to build empathy in an organization is to first understand where your organization sits along the continuum of sexual harassment risk. This can be accomplished through conducting a Workplace Climate Risk Assessment and policy review. Then innovative solutions such as VR training offer bystander intervention training that can help employees to directly understand the experience of witnessing sexual harassment and model ways to address it.

Are you creating a safe, healthy environment for your employees? What are you doing to prevent sexual harassment in your organization? Contact us to learn how Mercer help you take action.

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