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Coping with sexual harassment at work

Posted on 20 February 2019

If you follow this blog you will know I deal with many people who have suffered sexual harassment. I focus on emotional and mental wellbeing, but I also get asked about practical steps as well.

So this time, I am going to take a look about what you can do if you are being sexually harassed at work. At the forefront of my work is how you can protect yourself, and emerge with the least possible damage.

Since the #metoo campaign started and very high-profile people spoke out about their experiences of sexual harassment and assault, more and more people, both women and men have come forward to tell their stories. 

It is wonderful that people are feeling that they can speak out and do something about all forms of harassment and unwanted sexual attention.

 

Sexual harassment ruins careers

It is now obvious that sexual harassment at work exists in all types of workplaces and in all professions and jobs. The flood of revelations is making it crystal clear that lives are being destroyed all around us. Sexual harassment has financial and career-limiting effects as people have to leave their jobs or avoid going into the careers they want. We just do not know how many promotions have been missed, how many shifts have been lost, how many job changes and early retirements are attributable to sexual harassment, but we can make a good guess that it is huge.  It is no exaggeration to say that a large proportion of our workforce are living their lives in a psychological state of being under attack.

Sexual harassment does physical and mental harm

When you hear these stories on the news, you may be finding the revelations painful. Perhaps hearing about other people’s stories has brought back bad memories for you. Or it might be that, seeing other people taking a stand has made you realise that you cannot go on in your current situation. I hope you do feel you can do something if you are suffering, and I would encourage you to take action to defend and protect yourself. Make no mistake, if you are being sexually harassed at work, it is likely to be doing you great physical and mental harm. 

If this is happening to you, you are probably very aware of how career-limiting it is. Perhaps less obvious, but just as damaging are the enormous psychological consequences and effects sexual harassment can have.

For millions of people, going to work every day is a psychological equivalent of stepping into a lion’s den, primed for fight or flight. You may recognise this in yourself, perhaps you are feeling anxious, jumpy and tearful. This is not surprising, if you are going to work every day knowing that your personal integrity and body space are likely to be breached, your defence system will kick in. Every fibre of your being will be on the lookout for danger and primed to react. You will be hypervigilant, constantly looking out for the next threat.

I noticed, when I read many of the #me too stories, that there are common themes. And I know from my own work that these are replicated in ordinary workplaces up and down the country.

Understanding your experiences

Often the first hurdle is being clear, in your own mind, about what has happened or is happening to you. One of the most toxic aspects of sexual harassment is that the culprit will often deny anything untoward is happening.

This is sometimes called ‘gaslighting’ after a 1940s film where a wicked husband tries to convince his wife she is mad. One of his tactics is to deny that the gas lights in the house dwindle at certain times. They do and this is the key part of the plot. The term has been adopted now to describe situations where a perpetrator tries to convince the victim that their beliefs and experiences are not real.

A good starting point to validate your own experiences is the Citizens Advice website. https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/law-and-courts/discrimination/what-are-the-different-types-of-discrimination/sexual-harassment/

This gives a good no-nonsense guide to what sexual harassment at work can include. Here are some things you may recognise:

  • Sexual comments or jokes, in person or via email
  • Inappropriate touching
  • Unwelcome sexual advances
  • Staring or wolf whistling
  • Displaying images of a sexual nature
  • Being treated less favourably if you reject or object to such behaviour

These are some of common characteristics in many cases of workplace sexual harassment. I am going to expand on these a bit.

  • Under the guise of joking or banter or fun. This can be extremely toxic as it can make you doubt your own judgement if are feeling bad about it and want to object
  • Being held up to ridicule in front of other people and being stereotyped. In this form of harassment, gay men are snowflakes, women are over-emotional, young people aren’t serious and so on.
  • It is relentless and frequently escalating. It can start with a compliment, then asking for a phone number, then inappropriate personal comments, then unwanted touching. This can put the recipient under unbearable pressure, constantly worrying about what will happen next with an increasing feeling of dread.
  • There is an implied threat if the recipient complains or rejects the approaches. This can be direct: you will lose your job, you will get a bad performance review, or it can be insidious: you will be poorly-regarded by your colleagues, you will letting down the team, you are creating a bad atmosphere. This can feel like an attack on your credibility and it can make trying to stop the harassment feel dangerous.
  • It is often a more powerful person pressuring a less powerful, often younger, person. The Trades Union Congress, which has done a lot of research here, estimates that seventeen percent of complaints of sexual harassment are against a manager.

 

Because it is your livelihood sexual harassment at work can feel a prison

There is an extra and very nasty twist to this behaviour in a workplace situation. It is very hard to just walk away, to immediately escape the situation if you are sexually harassed at work. If you are, for example in a nightclub, and you are getting the sort of sexual attention you do not want then you can leave. This situation might not be fair or right, it might really annoy you, but chances are you can get out of the situation.

This is much less true of work. If you want to pay the mortgage you have little choice but to work. If you are being sexually harassed at work, you have little option but to keep turning up every day. So, every day the body and mind go into battle mode once more. This is incredibly damaging to our health and wellbeing. Being in constant fight or flight mode can lead to stress, anxiety, depression, headaches, sleep disorders, weight loss or gain, nausea, lowered self-esteem and sexual dysfunction.

Just looking at that list of symptoms may make you think that you have to change your situation. I am not going to say this is easy, but for the sake of your own health and well-being it is necessary that you do not just put up with it.

Your choices about what to do

What you can do will depend on a number of things, some in your control and some not.

The factors outside of your control

Type of workplace

What sort of workplace are you in? it is often easier to take action if you are in a well-run organisation with written human resources policies and a supportive structure or a workplace where trade unions or professional organisations are recognised. At least then you will have a clear path to follow. But if you work in a workplace where this isn’t true, all is not lost. All employers are required by law to have a grievance procedure, whoever they are.

What is your manager like?

A sympathetic manager who takes such issues seriously can make all the difference. It is usually best to start with your manager if you do make a complaint, unless they are directly involved, of course.

Your personal work situation and how you see it

How important is the job to you? Importance does not have to be at career development, professional success level, it can be a whole range of lifestyle factors which matter to you at the moment.

It might be that you want to keep the job because it is your best chance to take your career to the next stage. Or you might like where you work because you have childcare responsibilities and it is around the corner from the kid’s school.

Important reasons like these mean you may choose to steel yourself to take on the harasser.

On the other hand, if your job is a short-term contract, or it is a side-step until you move on to something better, you may decide it is not worth your precious energies.

I would love to be in a world where sexual harassment did not exist and where, if anyone behaved inappropriately then it was dealt with firmly and quickly. But unfortunately, that it is not the world we live in.

It is a sad truth that combatting sexual harassment is emotionally draining and very stressful. I do not want to send the wrong message here. You have every right to stand up to sexual harassment and to work in a safe environment. If you can change things then do. But keep in mind that you are in control. In some circumstances it can be fine to ask ‘is it worth it?’ and answer ‘no’.

 

Factors within your control

Your personal values and resources

You may feel a moral and social responsibility to take action to prevent the harassment happening to anyone else. If this feels true of you, then you may feel better for taking action. The pride and sense of having done something right, which you gain will be worth the stress and worry.

On the other hand, you may feel you don’t have the emotional space or time to confront this now, or that it is too risky. This is sad but it might be true for you. If you cannot face it, put it behind you and do not feel guilty. No-one can be a warrior all the time. Sometimes you have no choice but to walk away.

 

Your mindset matters whatever you choose to do

Whether you decide to confront the situation or walk away, it is important that you build your own self-esteem and sense of your own wellbeing.  

Go forward with the best possible attitude. Think about it this way. If you need help, legal or from a human resources department then it is best if you put yourself into a positive, assertive and calm mindset to get that help. You will be more likely to succeed and to protect yourself. If you choose to walk away, then you will want to strengthen that feeling you took control and then put it behind you.

I would advise that you see someone like myself, whatever you choose. If you are going to fight the issue, you can take the chance to explain in detail what has happened and get help to clear the negative emotions around it. You will also be able to explore, in a safe environment, your next steps. If you decide to walk away, you can get the tools to do so with your self-esteem intact.

Practical steps to deal with sexual harassment

It can be a good idea to keep a journal or diary about what is happening. Write dates and times and what happened. Remember that how you feel about how you are being treated is valid and important. If you are being made to feel uncomfortable you have a right to take action to stop the things which are making you feel like this. You have the right to be treated as an individual and to have your ethnicity, your gender and your sexuality respected.

Ultimately, you can take your case to an employment tribunal.

Prior to this you will need to go through the conciliation service ACAS. You must bring a claim within three months of the act you are complaining about. You can claim against the perpetrator and against your employer for not dealing with the situation. You will need to provide a witness statement, but this can be written, you will not have to read it to anyone. If you cannot reach an acceptable outcome through ACAS you can then go to a tribunal. The tribunal will decide if the incident would have offended a ‘reasonable’ person.

You can find out more at the ACAS website

http://www.acas.org.uk/index.aspx?articleid=6078

They also have an online helpline

http://www.acas.org.uk/index.aspx?articleid=4489

 

 

Looking after yourself

Practical solutions and support are essential, but they may not be enough. As we have seen, if you are experiencing sexual harassment you are taking a psychological battering and you may need professional, targeted help to rebuild your strength and self-esteem.

I would advise you to seek help from a cognitive hypnotherapist. If you can find someone who is also trained in eye movement techniques to help you deal with memories and trauma then even better. 

A good cognitive hypnotherapist will find out from you, your history and your experiences and help you learn how they impact on your behaviour now. This will enable you to use your own personality, your own strength and belief systems to deal with the situation you face.

If you come to see me, in my cognitive hypnotherapy clinics in Harley Street or in Henley then I will work with you to both heal the harm which has been done and build the resilience and confidence to help you win out in your current situation.

This will both help you cope in the here and now and also to connect with your core inner strength to stand you in good stead for the future. I will help you deal with painful memories and show you how to reduce painful emotions and unhelpful behaviours. This, in itself will show you, at a deep psychological level, that change is possible.

You will feel better after we have done this work, and that can happen in one session. Deeper work, getting to the root of the problems and healing long-term damage can take a little longer, but often we can resolve the issues in four to five sessions.

I will also take time to help you deal with your current situation, working with you to help change your current circumstances to get the best result for you. Your self-esteem and confidence will return and increase and you will feel able to look to your future with a new optimism.

Please do not suffer alone. Contact me here and let’s talk through what I can do for you.

 





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