Workers who have been exposed to sexual harassment at their workplace were at a greater risk of suicide and attempting suicide, warn researchers.

The findings published in the journal ‘The BMJ’ suggests that workplace interventions focusing on the social side of the work environment could help reduce suicides. The “Me Too” movement has brought a lot of attention to work-related sexual harassment in recent years and the impact it can have on businesses and society, but most importantly on individuals.

While previous research has found that sexual harassment at the workplace is linked to physical health symptoms and poorer mental health such as psychological distress, depression, and anxiety, little research has been carried out on its impact on suicidal behaviour. So a team of researchers from Stockholm University in Sweden set out to determine how exposure to workplace sexual harassment is associated with suicidal behaviour in a large population of Swedish workers.

The study included 85,205 men and women of working age in paid work who completed a questionnaire between 1995 and 2013 which included questions about exposure to work-related sexual harassment. Workers were asked if they had been subjected to sexual harassment at their workplace in the past 12 months either from superiors or fellow workers or from “other people”, such as patients, clients, passengers and students.

Any suicides or suicide attempts by these workers over an average follow up period of 13 years were identified from administrative registers. Overall, 4.8 per cent of the workers reported workplace sexual harassment during the previous 12 months: 1.9 per cent of all men and 7.5 per cent of all women. The findings showed that those exposed were more likely to be younger, single, divorced, and in low paid but high strain jobs (high demands but low control), and born outside of Europe.

After adjusting for sociodemographic factors, exposure to workplace sexual harassment was found to be associated with a 2.82 times greater risk of suicide and 1.59 times greater risk of attempted suicide. Sexual harassment from others was found to be more strongly associated with suicide than sexual harassment from superiors or fellow workers.

“More research is needed to determine causality and risk factors for workplace sexual harassment and the mechanisms explaining the association between work-related sexual harassment and suicidal behaviour, the study authors wrote.