From charges against Harvey Weinstein, to the #MeToo movement, to the contentious confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, sexual abuse and harassment have become – finally – elevated issues in our society.photo of Brett Kavanaugh

While these events have led some workplaces to make changes to address sexual harassment through policies and victim support, it’s not yet clear how many companies have or will make the larger reforms necessary to truly keep workers safe. Meanwhile, for survivors, the costs of coming forward have not lessened – according to her lawyer, Christine Blasey Ford continues to receive death threats and is unable to return to her home.

But there is another cost associated with sexual harassment – the economic burden caused by the combined the loss of workplace productivity, medical costs, criminal justice fees and property loss and damage.

$263 Billion a Year

Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated in 2016 that the national economic burden due to rape and sexual harassment that year was between $100,000 and $200,000 per victim, or a total of $263 billion. It’s likely that the CDC’s figure is highly underestimated given that so many cases of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment go unreported.

A recent article by Rebecca Greenfield and Janet Paskin takes a closer look at these costs, and the issues, especially as they relate to the workplace.

“These types of events definitely cause both psychological and physiological harm. People may not sleep well. They may have more depression and anxiety. They may get headaches,” says Lisa Kath, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University who studies workplace harassment. “And it’s all intertwined: If you’re not sleeping well, you’re not thinking well.”

The effects can show up right away, in medical bills and sick days. Or they can manifest years later.

“Three quarters of employees who experience harassment never tell their managers or HR” 

Society for Human Resource Management

The Greenfield and Paskin article refers to a study of more than 3,000 women, where researchers found that those who said they’d experienced childhood or adolescent sexual violence had healthcare costs 16% higher than women who didn’t have that experience – decades after the event occurred.

The point is not that sexual violence, abuse and harassment are expensive (although they are). The point is that these things cause damage in life-altering ways we rarely consider.

The Life-Altering Costs

Three-quarters of employees who experience harassment never tell their managers or HR, according to a survey from the Society for Human Resource Management. But they will – and do – quit their jobs.

Greenfield and Paskin point to one of the only studies that looked at the effects of sexual harassment on women’s careers over time, published in the journal Gender & Society in June 2017, researchers found that women who have been sexually harassed at work are six-and-a-half times more likely to leave their jobs than women who haven’t.

When women do leave, they tend to land in positions that pay less, not more, seeking out spaces where they’re less likely to get harassed. This means they land in less lucrative fields or positions – a negative economic impact that persists through the rest of their working years.

Victims are also put into the position of having to protect their future reputations. Speaking up can be “career-trajectory altering,” says Joni Hersch, an economist at Vanderbilt University who studies employment discrimination. “If you are known as that girl who complains, even informally, about ‘boys will be boys’ behavior, will you have the same opportunities to form connections that will eventually be valuable in the workplace?”

Time for Accountability

Many women say they don’t report sexual assault or harassment because they’re afraid no one will believe them. There’s a long-standing myth that women make false reports in order to hurt men. As a result, we’ve been loath to hold men of any age accountable – until recently.

As Kavanaugh and Blasey Ford prepared to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, comedian Bill Cosby was sentenced to 3 to 10 years in prison for drugging and assaulting Andrea Constand in 2004. Bill Cosby photoShe waited a year to tell anyone about it, and it took an additional 10 before he was charged with a crime.

Over the past year, sexual harassment and assault abruptly shifted from something men could get away with to something they maybe can’t. At the same time, more women are revealing their abuse stories and offering much-needed support for their sister victims.

It’s a cultural shift that is long overdue.

What Companies Can Do

Outside the workplace, there’s little more that company leaders can do besides take a public stance against all forms of sexual assault and harassment. Within the workplace, however, they can do quite a bit to protect employees and reduce costs – both in dollars and in life-long effects on the victims. They can institute the right programs and provide appropriate support. We suggest any organization take the following steps:

  • Understand this topic is a significant risk management issue for employers.
  • Create a clear sexual abuse and harassment policy and communicate it clearly to your employees.
  • Train managers and employees so they know what to look for and understand the costs.
  • Regularly encourage employees to ask for help.
  • Make access to medical and behavioral health services easy and confidential through a comprehensive employee assistance program (EAP) or, for universities, a student assistance program (SAP).
  • Consult with subject matter experts for further programming ideas.
  • Take complaints related to harassment seriously and support the victim.

As a leader in behavioral health, Espyr is frequently called upon to help our clients and their employees deal with sexual harassment and assault issues. For more information on how Espyr can help your company deal with these issues, or any other behavior health issue, call Espyr at 888-570-3749 or go to espyr.com.