The Impact of Workplace Harassment on Mental Health

Since 1949, May has been Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States. The goals of Mental Health Awareness Month include raising awareness about mental health issues and illnesses, educating the public about mental health, reducing the stigma and misconceptions about mental illness, and providing strategies for improving mental health and general wellbeing.

Mental health issues affect every aspect of an individual’s life, and the workplace – where Americans spend about one third of their adult life – is no exception. A 2019 survey conducted by Mind Share Partners revealed that experiencing symptoms of negative mental health at the workplace is the norm rather than the exception. While one in five (i.e. 20%) individuals have a mental health condition, the study showed that 60% of individuals experienced mental health symptoms over the past year.[1] And, symptoms are equally prevalent across all levels of seniority, from company CEOs all the way down the chain of command. 

Not surprisingly, a negative environment at work can lead to or exacerbate mental health problems. And, a negative work environment does not only take a toll on employees’ health and wellbeing; the health consequences can also be costly to employers by resulting in reduced productivity and increased absenteeism and staff turnover. In fact, the Mind Share Partners’ survey found that 61% of individuals stated their productivity was affected by their mental health. Also, a recent study led by the World Health Organization estimated that depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy approximately $1 trillion U.S. dollars each year in lost productivity.[2] Consequently, employers that promote mental health and support employees with mental illnesses are more likely to benefit from associated economic gains, such as increased productivity and talent retention.

While Mental Health Awareness Month comes to a close, mental health issues continue to press on, particularly during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Employers and employees alike will benefit from an employer’s efforts to promote positive mental health and support employees with mental health issues. These efforts may include providing training on mental health, particularly to managerial employees; encouraging open communication between colleagues through open-ended questions and consistent check-ins; putting programs in place that encourage employees to be more comfortable sharing and discussing their mental health; and establishing anti-harassment policies and effective protocols to address harassment.

Taking Steps against Workplace Harassment

Preventing workplace harassment is extremely important for employers as a way to promote positive mental health.  Indeed, harassment is a commonly reported cause of work-related stress and presents health risks to employees. A study conducted in 2014 found that workplace harassment in the United States is associated with significant health risk factors and morbidity, and that anti-harassment workplace policies and protocols can play a major role in reducing harassment and the resulting negative health consequences.[3]

Proactive steps employers can take to prevent or limit workplace harassment may include:

  1. Maintain a written anti-harassment policy. The policy should be clear-cut and easy to understand. The policy should be reviewed with all employees and made easily accessible for future reference. Some states, such as California[4] and New York,[5] require such policies by law. 
  2. Institute training programs. Employers may consider providing training programs to all employees with a focus on how to identify unacceptable behavior in the workplace, including recognizing sexual harassment and what steps to take to report inappropriate behavior the employee observes or personally experiences. Also, specialized harassment training may be provided to managers and supervisors on issues relating to identifying harassment as well as properly responding to complaints and reports of harassment received from subordinates. In some states, training is mandatory and must be provided on a regular basis (annually or every two years). 
  3. Establish a clear complaint reporting procedure. The process for making a complaint should be clear and easy to follow. Employees should feel that each complaint is taken seriously and will be investigated when appropriate to do so. Additionally, consistent communication with the employee making the complaint throughout the process is helpful to provide assurances.
  4. Create a protocol for investigating reports and complaints. Larger organizations may find it useful to have a set protocol in place for investigations to ensure consistency in the company’s approach and ensure that appropriate steps are taken each time.[6]  

While the current global pandemic has disrupted nearly every aspect of the workplace, including a shift for many companies to a virtual, work-from-home model, it does not mean that workplace harassment has ceased. In fact, with many employees working in pajamas and sitting comfortably at home behind a computer screen, the type of professionalism exhibited at the workplace may be lost and lines regarding acceptable behavior may begin to blur. Harassment such as crude jokes or inappropriate images shared over emails may become more rampant. So, while employers have a lot of other priorities due to the global pandemic, their obligation to address and investigate harassment complaints should not fall by the wayside. Even if investigations of reported harassment need to be conducted virtually because employees continue to work from home, they should be conducted promptly and thoroughly. Employers may consider changing or revising their protocols accordingly to lend themselves to this new environment.  

A Quick Reminder about Harassment Training Requirements in CA and NY

New York State Law now requires that every employer, no matter its size, provide anti‑sexual harassment training to all employees on an annual basis.[7] The New York Department of Labor and Division of Human Rights provides free training videos and materials that employers can use to satisfy the training requirements.[8] If an employer prefers to use its own training, the training must be interactive and include (1) an explanation of sexual harassment, (2) examples of conduct that would constitute unlawful sexual harassment, (3) information concerning the federal and state statutory provisions concerning sexual harassment and remedies available to victims of sexual harassment, (4) information concerning employees’ rights of redress and all available forums for adjudicating complaints, and (5) information addressing conduct by supervisors and any additional responsibilities for such supervisors.

Under California law, employers with five or more employees (including temporary and seasonal workers) are required to provide sexual harassment prevention training to all employees by January 1, 2021, and once every two years thereafter.[9]  The law requires covered employers to provide at least two hours of sexual harassment training to all supervisory employees and at least one hour of sexual harassment training to all nonsupervisory employees. Note that under current law, employers with 50 or more employees are already required to provide supervisory employees with two hours of sexual harassment training. The new law does not extend the compliance deadlines for those obligations. However, it clarifies that supervisors who were provided training in 2018 do not need to be trained again until 2020. Beginning January 1, 2021, temporary or seasonal employees hired to work for less than six months must be trained within 30 calendar days of beginning work or 100 hours of work, whichever occurs first. 

The California DFEH offers a free online training course that satisfies the requirement for nonsupervisory employees[10] and is working on developing free training for supervisory employees as well. Employers, however, can choose to provide their own training, either live or in another kind of interactive format. The training must include (1) information and practical guidance regarding federal and state law concerning the prohibition against and prevention of sexual harassment, (2) information regarding the remedies available to victims of sexual harassment; (3) practical examples of harassment, discrimination, and retaliation; and (4) information about preventing abusive conduct and harassment based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.

Even for those employers not in New York or California, harassment training for employees can be very beneficial, particularly for supervisory employees. Taking steps to prevent harassment in the workplace can promote positive mental health.

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[1] https://www.mindsharepartners.org/mentalhealthatworkreportMind Share Partners’ 2019 Mental Health at Work Report surveyed 1,500 individuals from March to April 2019.  All participants were at least 16 years old, employed in a full-time position at a company with at least 11 employees, and resided in the United States.

[2] See World Health Organization Mental Health in the Workplace Information Sheet at https://www.who.int/mental_health/in_the_workplace/en/.

[3] Khubchandan, J., Price, J.  Workplace Harassment and Morbidity Among US Adults: Results from the National Health Interview Survey.  Journal of community health 40, no. 3 (2015): 555-563, available at https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25399052/.

[4] See California Code of Regulations, section 11023 (2 CCR § 11023).  California also requires employers to either post the poster on sexual harassment created by its Department of Fair Employment and Housing (“DFEH”) or distribute the fact sheet on sexual harassment to employees.  Both can be found at https://www.dfeh.ca.gov/Posters/ under Required Materials.

[5] See New York Labor Law Section 201-g (N.Y. Lab. Law § 201-g).

[6] The California DFEH has published a comprehensive Workplace Harassment Prevention Guide, which can be useful to employers both in and outside of California.  The guide can be found here: https://www.dfeh.ca.gov/wp-content/uploads/sites/32/2017/06/DFEH-Workplace-Harassment-Guide-1.pdf 

[7] N.Y. Lab. Law § 201-g.

[8] This resource is available here: https://www.ny.gov/combating-sexual-harassment-workplace/employers.

[9] Under SB 1343, the initial compliance deadline was January 1, 2020, but SB 778 extended that deadline to January 1, 2021.  It would not be surprising if this deadline were extended again, given the disruptions to business caused by the global pandemic.

[10] This resource is available here: https://www.dfeh.ca.gov/shpt/.