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Workplace harassment can impact your mental health, even if ‘just’ verbal

During the ongoing Mental Health Awareness Month, there must be a conversation around how verbal harassment at the workplace impacts mental health

Non-verbal sexual harassment may include a range of behaviours such as sharing inappropriate jokes
Non-verbal sexual harassment may include a range of behaviours such as sharing inappropriate jokes (Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels)

Jayanti P (she did not want her full name to be published), who works in the media, was shocked when, just a week after joining a new workplace, her boss showed her some inappropriate videos under the guise of ‘being friendly’. “I didn’t know how to react initially and I did tell him that I was uncomfortable watching these videos with him, but he just laughed it off,” says 32-year-old Jayanti. Having been through Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) training in office, she knew this could be reported, but when she spoke about it with her family and friends, they said that she was “making a big deal” and was "spoiling a perfectly fine work relationship when he didn’t make a move on her or physically assault her.” Jayanti was shocked at this response, and went ahead and filed the complaint anyway against all the resistance. Her case is currently under review by her organisation’s Human Resources (HR) department.

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While it is true that most companies have made POSH training mandatory and have made it easier, at least in theory, for employees to report instances of sexual harassment, it is not made as easy in practice, especially when the harassment is of a nature that can be dismissed as ‘not harmful’. But non-physical sexual harassment can be just as virulent and can impact the mental health of victims equally strongly, including creating a lack of self confidence in them, inducing imposter syndrome and lack of faith in one’s own judgement. It can ultimately have a considerable impact on a person’s productivity and career growth.

Non-verbal sexual harassment may include a range of behaviours, such as inappropriate or lewd comments, suggestive jokes, unwanted attention, or pressure to enter into a sexual relationship. These behaviours can create a hostile work environment and leave the victim feeling anxious, depressed, and even traumatized. Studies have shown that non-physical sexual harassment can lead to long-term emotional and psychological effects, similar to those experienced by victims of physical assault. This is only made worse when the victim’s own support system and women within it are also unsupportive if the harassment was not physical in nature.

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Co-workers often dismiss instances of non-physical sexual harassment, downplaying the experience, says Samriti Makkar Midha, co-founder of POSH at Work and a clinical psychologist. “Even some individuals close to the victim might play the devil’s advocate and give the accused the benefit of the doubt in such cases. This is unhelpful because it trivializes and minimizes the experience of the person who was harassed,” says Midha. While most people who make these remarks may do so out of a protective instinct, it often has a counterproductive effect on the victim.

It is crucial to recognize and validate the experiences of those who have been subjected to non-physical sexual harassment. Dismissing or trivializing their experiences can lead to a sense of isolation and a reluctance to seek help or report incidents. Encouraging open communication and empathy for victims can foster a supportive environment, allowing them to heal and seek justice. Employers, colleagues, and friends must acknowledge that non-physical harassment is as harmful as physical forms and should be addressed with the same level of seriousness. Providing resources and education on understanding and responding to sexual harassment can empower individuals to identify and confront these issues, ultimately creating safer and more inclusive workplaces and communities.

Midha, in collaboration with POSH at Work, has established essential guidelines that all organizations should follow to address sexual harassment claims with the necessary sensitivity and understanding. While organizations may adhere to these protocols, it is often the reactions and attitudes of individuals within the organization or those close to the victims that significantly influence the victims’ experiences. The support and responses received after taking the courageous step to report harassment can shape the course of the victim’s recovery and their experience throughout the hearing process. Midha suggests some ways to support victims of non-physical sexual harassment:

1. Listen without judgment: When someone shares their experience with sexual harassment, it is important to listen attentively and avoid interrupting. Show empathy and understanding by validating their feelings and acknowledging the courage it took for them to speak up.

2. Offer emotional support: Let the victim know that you are there for them and that their feelings are valid. Encourage them to seek professional help if necessary, such as therapy or counselling, to help them cope with the emotional and psychological effects of the harassment.

3. Encourage reporting: Support the victim in reporting the incident to the appropriate authorities, such as Human Resources or a supervisor. Reporting can help hold the harasser accountable and prevent future incidents.

4. Advocate for a safe work environment: Work together with the victim to address and change the workplace culture that enables sexual harassment. This might include proposing and implementing policies, providing training, and promoting awareness about the issue.

5.Help the victim access resources: Share information about support groups, counseling services, and legal options that may be available to them. This can help empower the victim and provide them with tools to cope with the aftermath of the harassment.

Non-physical sexual harassment is a critical issue with the potential to cause long-term psychological harm to those affected. As friends, family members, and colleagues, it is essential that we aim to be empathetic and supportive listeners, working together to dismantle the stigma surrounding non-physical harassment and enabling victims to heal and regain their sense of self. Recognizing the profound consequences of such incidents is a vital step in fostering safer and more inclusive workspaces where everyone is accorded respect and dignity.

To achieve this, we can educate ourselves and others about the various forms of non-physical sexual harassment, which can include verbal comments, suggestive gestures, and inappropriate online communications. Additionally, we should actively challenge victim-blaming attitudes and strive to create an atmosphere where individuals feel comfortable speaking up about their experiences without fear of judgment or reprisal. Encouraging open communication and trust can help in raising awareness and reinforcing the fact that everyone has a right to a harassment-free environment.

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