Better prevention and management of sexual harassment in the workplace has been rising in importance for years, and has come into sharper focus in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

Most frequently sexual harassment is considered as a human resources issue, however the impact on those experiencing the sexual harassment in the workplace should be more properly considered as a work health and safety risk.

During 2016 the Victorian Trades Hall Council conducted a survey of women in Victorian workplaces (download the report here) that found 64% of participants had experienced sexual harassment or violence in their workplace. Other surveys including both women and men have found rates of sexual harassment at work across the workforce as a whole as high as 85%.

If this level of musculoskeletal injuries or slip/trip incidents were found in a workplace, it would be identified on the WHS Risk Register with a high priority given for the implementation of new risk treatments.

Sexual harassment in the workplace has measurable impacts on worker wellbeing. The stress and sense of isolation can result in physical illness and mental disorders, not to mention physical injuries where violence or assault occurs. Psychosocial disorders, and workers’ compensation claims for them, are one of the indicators that the risk is not being well managed in many workplaces.

Poor management of this WHS risk also has measurable impacts on workplaces, including:

  • lower retention rates resulting increased recruitment costs;
  • poor morale and absenteeism impacting on productivity;
  • complaint investigations resulting in time and opportunity costs;
  • increased workers’ compensation premiums; and
  • potentially considerable reputational damage.

The measures that will assist in managing the WHS risk of sexual harassment will vary according to the workplace, but taking a risk-identification approach to the issue will help to determine both the causes of the risk in a given workplace, and the treatments that can be implemented to mitigate it.

Treatments can include:

  • Ensure that all leadership and management personnel understand that no workplace should be perceived as free of the risk of sexual harassment, and provide training in how to recognise it in both its obvious and its insidious forms
  • Strategies around reducing gender inequality such as including more women in supervisory and leadership roles, improving job security for casually employed women
  • Providing training around sexual harassment policy, communication, employment rights, etc.
  • Disrupt gender stereotypes in role allocations across the organisation, which may include affirmative action in recruitment
  • Review what behaviour and attitudes get rewarded in the organisation, e.g. less rewarding of aggressive “go-getter” behaviour and more rewarding of team building behaviour

Approaching sexual harassment as an organisational WHS risk, and actively managing it accordingly, will help to ensure a more productive and mentally healthy workplace.