Sexual harassment, abuse tied to real health effects

PHOTO: The New Paper file

Sexual harassment and sexual abuse occur frequently and can harm physical and mental health, according to two studies from the US and Europe published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

In one study, roughly 1 in 5 Pittsburgh-area women said they had been sexually harassed or sexually assaulted. These women were two to three times more likely to have high blood pressure, high triglycerides, poor sleep, depression or anxiety.

In the other study, 70 per cent of male and female physicians in Berlin, Germany, said they had experienced sexual harassment or misconduct at work.

"Experiences of sexual harassment and sexual abuse, unfortunately, are not uncommon," said Rebecca Thurston, director of the women's behavioural health laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "And these experiences have implications for not only job performance and quality of life, but also for mental and physical health."

Among the 304 women aged 40 to 60 who participated in Thurston's study, 19 per cent said they had been sexually harassed at work and 23 per cent said they had been sexually assaulted.

These percentages are lower than what's been reported nationally, possibly because some women in the study did not work outside the home, Thurston said. The women were originally recruited for a study of hot flashes and atherosclerosis.

Thurston's team found that compared to women who had not been sexually harassed, women who had were 2.36 times more likely to have high blood pressure and 89 per cent more likely to have poor sleep. In newer findings presented this week at the annual meeting of the North American Menopause Society in San Diego, Thurston and colleagues reported that the likelihood of having high triglycerides was three times higher in sexually harassed women.

Thurston suspects that being harassed kicks off changes in stress hormone levels, which ultimately impact blood pressure, triglycerides and sleep patterns.

Similar results were seen among women who said they'd been sexually assaulted. They were 2.86 times more likely to have clinical depression, 2.26 times more likely to have clinical anxiety and 2.15 times more likely to have poor sleep.

Dr. Mayumi Okuda, a psychiatrist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City, isn't surprised by the findings. Research in children "shows that adverse childhood experiences are connected to so many things, such as high blood pressure, cancer, obesity," said Okuda. "This shows that even adults will experience negative health consequences."

The German survey of 737 physicians found 62 per cent of men and 76 per cent of women had experienced some sort of sexual harassment in the workplace. While the idea of men being harassed may be surprising, certain types of conversations can make men very uncomfortable, said senior researcher Dr. Sabine Oertelt-Prigione, a professor and chair of Gender in Primary and Transmural Care at Radboud University Medical Center in Nijmegen, The Netherlands.

For men, "the vulgar talk has to be specifically addressed towards you or an immediate bystander," Oertelt-Prigione said in an email. "The question in the questionnaire explicitly addressed this directionality. We are not talking about somebody telling a general vulgar joke to a group of colleagues."

Sexual harassment "is an issue for anyone in the workplace," Oertelt-Prigione said. It flourishes in workplaces where there is a strong formal hierarchy, "where orders are generally given top-down with little opportunity for participation from employees," Oertelt-Prigione explained.

Lori Post, who wasn't involved in either study, suspects that if the questionnaire had been worded differently, Oertelt-Prigione's study would have found an even higher prevalence of sexual harassment. "I believe the rate is closer to 100 per cent," said Post, who is director of the Buehler Center for Health Policy and Economics at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. "The difference is in how often and how bad it is."

Post also believes Thurston's harassment numbers might have been higher if the Pittsburgh team had not excluded women with heart disease from the study, since heart disease could be correlated with harassment.

The solution to health problems related to harassment and abuse is to prevent these behaviours from happening in the first place, Okuda said. "There has to be a cultural shift away from condoning this kind of behaviour."

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