#MeToo: Health consequences of harassment at work

By | 2018-01-22T20:27:30+00:00 October 25th, 2017|2 Comments

Celebrity chef John Besh has joined Harvey Weinstein and Bill O’Reilly in news headlines about sexual harassment in the workplace. The New Orleans-based Besh has received numerous James Beard awards and has appeared on the Bravo TV network’s show Top Chef. His offenses were reported this week by Brett Anderson at The Times-Picayune. The reporter’s eight-month long investigation included interviews with 25 current and former employees of the Besh Restaurant Group.

Brett Anderson’s story includes a copy of one of the EEOC complaints filed by a former employee. That employee says:

“Vulgar and offensive comments, aggressive unwelcome touching and sexual advances were condoned and sometimes even encouraged by managers and supervisors.”

She adds:

“The rampant sexual misbehavior and harassment by the owners and managers of BRG had become unbearable and was adversely affecting my mental and physical health.”

A work environment that tolerates sexual harrassment and unwanted sexual attention adversely affects women and men’s health. The evidence includes:

  • Jagdish Khubchandani and James H. Price examined the relationship between workplace harassment and psychological and physical health. Using data from the 2010 National Health Interview Survey, about 8 percent of the 17,524 respondents reported being harassed at work in the past 12 months. Harassment was associated with psychosocial distress, pain disorders, work loss, bed days, and worsening health.
  • Nabe-Nielsen and her colleagues in Denmark examined unwanted sexual attention and bullying in the workplace and its relationship to poor sleep. The used data from the Danish workers’ compensation system and survey responses from 7,650 individuals over a two-year period. The authors reported the odds of experiencing 30 or more consecutive sick days were significantly increased by unwanted sexual attention (OR 1.55; 95 % CI 1.06-2.29).
  • Cassandra Okechukwu and colleagues review dozens of papers that explore symptoms of anxiety, depression, PTSD, and other health effects experienced by individuals who are victims of workplace bullying and sexual harassment.

Many individuals who work in the restaurant industry specifically describe a tolerance for sexual harassment. It’s a message that comes through loud and clear in 12 reports by the Restaurant Opportunity Center (ROC) of food service workers in 12 different U.S. cities.  In John Besh’s hometown of New Orleans, ROC members interviewed 530 restaurant workers. The results were released in the 2013 report, “Behind the Kitchen Door: Inequality, Instability, and Opportunity in the Greater New Orleans Restaurant Industry.” Among its findings, eight percent of those surveyed reported experiencing sexual harassment on the job. From the report:

“A bartender in the industry who has been in the industry for six years explains that ‘sexual harassment is a horrible problem in the French Quarter. Women do not get any respect. Men are put through the same thing as women. If you even say anything to anyone you are immediately losing your job, and coming here was my first experience with sexual harassment.’ Women workers we interviewed often described the back of the house as a place where explicit sexual comments could be made and even physical contact in inappropriate ways.”

Similarly themed interview excerpts appear in all of the reports—whether the restaurant workers were in Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Maine, Miami, District of Columbia, Philadelphia, Seattle, or Oakland/San Francisco—-sexual harassment emerges as a common theme.

A hostile work environment is an occupational health problem. A work environment that tolerates sexual harassment makes workers ill. It may be the work condition of most significant concern to workers in some workplaces, yet largely absent or ignored in typical safety programs.

CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), however, urges employers, safety professionals and researchers to consider work-related determinants of health more broadly. The agency’s Total Worker Health model for workplace health and safety recommends a holistic approach in which the work environment includes much more than unguarded equipment, falls hazards, and chemical exposures. The model includes the broadest range of work environment topics, including excessive overtime, wages, downsizing, as well as bullying and harassment.

NIOSH’s 2nd International Symposium on Total Worker Health is scheduled for May 2018. The agency is accepting abstracts until October 31. I urge the agency to organize a #MeToo session which further examines sexual harassment as an occupational health issue.

 

About the Author:

Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH
Celeste Monforton is a fellow in the Collegium Ramazzini; a lecturer at Texas State University; and professorial lecturer at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University. She receives funding from the Public Welfare Foundation.

2 Comments

  1. Adele L. Abrams, Esq. CMSP October 28, 2017 at 11:32 am - Reply

    This is an excellent idea for a session. There was some research presented this week at the #USE2017 conference sponsored by NIOSH, ASSE and ERCs, concerning mental health stressors in the workplace (including sexual harassment), and that could be included. #MeToo

  2. Adele L. Abrams, Esq. CMSP October 28, 2017 at 11:36 am - Reply

    One further suggestion for a panel: include reps from ASSE’s Women in Safety Engineering (WISE) group and also the National Safety Council’s Women’s Caucus.

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