Does Sexual Harassment Raise the Risk of Suicide? | EAPA-SA

While sexual harassment under any circumstances can wreak havoc on a victim’s health and wellbeing, workplace harassment is a special kind of menace. It is like a cancer that works its way through a work environment causing disastrous results. Employees who are being sexually harassed at work talk of having feelings of dread when commuting to work; suffering from anxiety, panic attacks, random fits of crying as well as physical manifestations of stress such as hair loss, shingles, weight gain or loss, sleeplessness and exhaustion. 


“…workplace harassment is a special kind of menace. It is like a cancer that works its way through a work environment causing disastrous results.”

Victims may feel that they did something to bring this unwanted attention upon themselves or to encourage the harassment in some way. This can lead to feelings of embarrassment or fear over family, colleagues or superiors finding out. Junior employees may begin to doubt their ability and wonder if they were hired because of their physical attributes or sexual value. If they have to no other work environment to compare with, they may have no idea what constitutes normal or acceptable workplace behaviour and what the appropriate recourse for sexual harassment is.


What is sexual harassment?

The South African Government’s Code of Good Practice on Sexual Harassment describes sexual harassment as “any form of unwanted conduct of a sexual nature”. The document also outlines the different forms of sexual harassment which include:

  • Physical conduct (unwanted touching or physical contact)
  • Verbal conduct (catcalling, unwanted flirting, jokes referring to sexual acts/orientation, inappropriate questions about one’s sex life, asking for sexual favours)
  • Non-verbal contact (unwanted sexual gestures, indecent exposure).
  • Quid Pro Quo (when a senior influences employment and advancement conditions in exchange for sexual favours). 


“Online sexual harassment in the remote workplace can look similar to in-office harassment, but it is conducted through a variety of remote technologies.”

Sexual harassment in the remote workplace

Online sexual harassment in the remote workplace can look similar to in-office harassment, but it is conducted through a variety of remote technologies. Online sexual harassment can include the following behaviours: 

  • Statements or questions of a sexual nature during conference calls or video meetings
  • Subjecting viewers or listeners to sexual content during remote meetings
  • Digital messages that are sexually suggestive or explicit
  • Sexually inappropriate messages or posts sent via apps

Research on sexual harassment in the workplace in South Africa

A small-sample research survey of 1000 South Africans, conducted by research agency Columinate in 2018, reported that roughly 30 percent of women (1 in 3 people) and 18 percent of men (1 in 5 people) confirm they have been victims of unwanted sexual advances in the workplace. According to the report, based on the findings it is evident that more work needs to be done by corporate SA to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace and organisations need to ensure that employees are aware of the procedures in place to assist victims of sexual harassment to report the incident without fear of retaliation or consequences for their careers.


Negative mental and physical outcomes of sexual harassment

It is well understood that an experience of sexual harassment can either trigger symptoms of depression and anxiety that are new to the person, or it can aggravate a previous condition that may have been controlled or resolved.

  • Among women, 90 percent who experience sexual violence will, in the immediate aftermath, exhibit symptoms of acute stress.
  • A person encountering or dealing with the aftermath of sexual harassment may also exhibit symptoms of PTSD, especially if the harassment has led to violence or assault.
  • For many victims, these symptoms diminish over time through psycho-social support and coping strategies. Many people will totally recover and move on, but some will be so distressed that it interferes greatly with their work and personal life.
  • Sometimes sexual harassment registers as a trauma that is too difficult for the victim to deal with.  Their body becomes overwhelmed to the degree that it can lead to physical symptoms, manifesting as muscle aches, headaches, or even chronic physical health problems such as high blood pressure and problems with blood sugar.

“Many people will totally recover and move on, but some will be so distressed that it interferes greatly with their work and personal life.”

A link between sexual harassment and suicidal behaviour

A study recently published in the American medical journal The BMJ, revealing the outcome of a research study conducted with a large cohort of Swedish men and women over thirteen years supports “the hypothesis that workplace sexual harassment is prospectively associated with suicidal behaviour.” 

  • While it is already accepted that sexual victimisation may lead to suicidal behaviour, it concedes that no population-based prospective studies on work-related sexual harassment and suicide or suicide attempts has been conducted. 
  • It suggests that suicide prevention, considering the social work environment, may be useful and links sexual harassment in the workplace to mental health factors such as psychological distress, anxiety and depression and physical health issues such as illnesses and absenteeism due to poor health. 
  • Researchers in America believe this study underscores the need to consider workplace sexual harassment as both an occupational hazard and a significant public health problem. 

The team of Swedish researchers responsible for the study say no workplace can be considered safe unless it’s free of harassment.


“It is important to protect your employees and vendors from sexual harassment through the creation and implementation of an effective Sexual Harassment Policy.”

Developing an effective anti-harassment policy for the workplace

It is important to protect your employees and vendors from sexual harassment through the creation and implementation of an effective Sexual Harassment Policy. This should:

  • Define sexual harassment and provide clear examples of what sexual harassment is. Examples should be relevant to your working environment and reflect the diverse range of people that harassment may affect.
  • State that sexual harassment will not be tolerated and is unlawful.
  • Specify who is protected.
  • State that harassment or victimisation may lead to disciplinary action up to and including dismissal. 
  • State that aggravating factors, such as abuse of power over a more junior colleague, will be taken into account in deciding what disciplinary action to take.
  • Include an effective procedure for receiving and responding to complaints of harassment. 
  • Address third-party harassment. This section should explain clearly
    • that it will not be tolerated and third-party harassment can result in legal liability,
    • that workers are encouraged to report it, 
    • what steps will be taken to prevent it, and what steps will be taken to remedy a complaint or prevent it from happening again. For example, warning a customer about their behaviour, banning a customer, reporting any criminal acts to the police, or sharing information with other branches of the business. 
  • Include a commitment to review the policy at regular intervals and to monitor its effectiveness. 
  • Cover all areas of your organisation, including any overseas sites, subject to any applicable local laws.


At the end of the day, prevention is better than cure

It is important to cultivate a work environment where behaviour tending towards sexual harassment can be reported, even if it feels “weird” but hasn’t yet crossed an obvious line – where there is a culture of openness and trust that encourages engagement without judgement between affected employees and a supervisor or HR practitioner. 



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