38% Women Face Mental Harassment At Work Every Day, So What Can Employers Do About It?

Subtle acts of mental harassment at work often lead women to quit their jobs. What can India Inc do to ensure women’s workplace safety?

A few days ago, a friend shared her experience of mental harassment at work. “He is a well-known interior designer. He humiliated me publicly for minor things. He would hurl abuses and break things for ridiculous reasons. At times, he would shout at me for no fault of mine. I could not raise a complaint because there was no HR department. We were a small organization, and he was the CEO.” 

She exemplified the extent to which this can have an effect on workplace performance and how we can resolve these issues of psychological violence at work.

In 2022, the International Labor Organization’s study, ‘Experiences of Violence and Harassment: A Global First Survey,’ revealed that globally, 583 million individuals experienced psychological violence and harassment in their working life. 18.6% were women – a significantly large number, considering women comprise 47% of the global workforce.

What is mental harassment at work?

Can you identify which scenario provided below represents mental harassment at work?

Scenario 1 – Your boss regularly points out your professional weaknesses in team meetings without any constructive criticism.

Scenario 2 – You live 30 kilometers away from your office. You complete all your work by 6 p.m. to reach home safely. Your co-worker, however, tells you this reflects poorly on your work commitment.

Scenario 3 – You often hear your trainees commenting on your heavy accent. They deliberately pronounce words the way you speak. When you confront them, they say it’s a joke.

If you guessed that all three scenarios represent mental harassment at work, you are right.

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(Read on to the end for a super useful checklist we have put together to check if your workplace has minimised mental harassment at work.)

It is challenging to pinpoint mental harassment at work, making it an invisible form of violence. It manifests in covert forms such as gaslighting, inappropriate jokes, and unreasonable criticism. Psychological harassment at work is an under-discussed issue and causes guilt, anxiety, and emotional distress.

Data reveals that the female labor force experiences mental harassment at work more often than others. Women’s Web designed a quantitative survey to delve into the issue of women’s experiences of mental harassment at work. Participants included 82 respondents who identify as Indian female/ non-binary and are either salaried employees or on a career break or entrepreneurs.

What did we learn from our survey about mental harassment at work?

A majority of women face mental harassment at work daily. 73.2% of women stated they experienced mental harassment at work in some form, 7.3% of women were unsure, and 19.5% of women did not experience workplace harassment. Our study focuses on the women who fall into the first two categories.

Figure 1

Here are ten things we learned from these women’s experiences:

1. Women are unsure of what constitutes mental harassment at work

While women recognize toxic behaviours at their workplace, they do not understand if the actions would qualify as mental harassment at work. A gap exists in grappling with the basic understanding of psychological violence at work.

Overall, 21% of our respondents did not accelerate their issue with HR because of the gap in understanding. Ultimately, this leaves women unable to pinpoint their mistreatment in the workplace.

2. Mental harassment at work is often invisible

Mental harassment is an invisible form of harassment because it is subtle and elusive. Often, employees are manipulated into believing that their work commitments are not strong enough and hence they are on the receiving end of abuse.

Behaviours such as constant shifting of goals, micromanagement, withholding information, and promotions are signs of mental harassment. These behaviors are not outright, making it difficult to notice them.

To understand how our respondents identified mental harassment at work, we listed ten forms of abuse. Figure 2 shows the abusive practices that are prevalent in the workplace.

Figure 2

The study revealed:

  • Over 15% of women faced at least one form of abuse last year
  • Close to 38% of women experienced one of these behaviors daily
  • 5% of the respondents had to quit their jobs because of such behaviors.

3. Mental harassment at work has no real restrictions

Be it person, time, or space, mental harassment is prevalent anytime, anywhere. It is not limited to gender, work hours, or even the mode of abuse like in-person or online. Employees across the gender spectrum and professional positions can inflict mental harassment. However, our research revealed that the perpetrators were, in many instances, men in managerial positions.

4. Leaders escape punishment by virtue of their position

A leading reason women refrain from complaining about mental harassment at work is that their direct managers or senior leaders are involved in the act. As authority figures, the perpetrators do not face the consequences. Instead, women are at risk of losing their careers for complaining.

Some respondents stated, “The person was head of the institution”; “It’s a startup, and the founder gaslighted me. There was no point reporting”; “My Direct Manager was also the MD. He was a serial harasser.”

Instances like these show that workplace power dynamics play an extensive role in harboring unsafe work cultures.

Figure 3

5. A trusted personal network is more reliable than colleagues

Women prefer discussing their experiences of workplace harassment with families and friends outside the workplace rather than with their HR teams and co-workers. Our research showed that 62.1% of respondents found this the most viable option.

Most women don’t feel that they can report such harassment at work, as they don’t trust the HR department to have the right policies or processes in place for dealing with it.

6. An unreliable HR team is as good as a missing HR team

It takes an efficient HR team to battle mental harassment at work. If the HR team is not empowered to build practical solutions to resolve issues of psychological harassment at work, it is unreliable. The absence of trust in HR and lack of processes allows perpetrators to roam scot-free while ensuring the complainant remains stagnant in a toxic environment.

When employees share statements such as, “The HR himself was involved in the harassment” or “If you complain against any higher official at work, you get punished. They roam around scot-free,” it becomes evident that having an unreliable HR team is as good as having none.

Common characteristics of unreliable HR teams are:

  • They ignore complaints
  • Employees fear reporting their grievances to them because the decision might backfire
  • They are unapproachable
  • They do not hold any accountability and only follow a ‘box-ticking’ culture.

Since women realize that even upon acknowledging their experiences, their organization will not support them, they refrain from discussing the issue further.

7. Minimal dialogue around mental harassment at work

While acts such as POSH ensure each employee gets the necessary training on sexual harassment, there are no clear policies or resources to tackle mental harassment. Women are left to decide how to respond to the situation by themselves while compromising the confidentiality of their complaints.

Having accessible and transparent workplace procedures against mental harassment is still a luxury for many. Less than 19% of our respondents have insightful policies on mental harassment at work.

8. Workplaces have minimal facilities to tackle psychological violence

Curbing mental harassment at work requires resources such as an unbiased HR team, transparent procedures, and safe spaces. However, such facilities are available only to a few women.

Scattered resources and dwindling policies further push the idea of a safe workplace.  Among our respondents, 39.1% had no facilities like policies, HR teams, or safe spaces to accelerate their issues.

9. A good manager is a necessary resource

Since mental harassment is challenging, an approachable manager is a helpful resource. A manager who is not merely an authoritarian figure but an active ally against psychological harassment can benefit the organization as well as the employee.

10. Accountability is a far-fetched goal

While organizations engage in anonymous surveys and policy building to tackle mental harassment, one thing that remains unfulfilled is attaching accountability to policy implementation. Organizations need to prepare and provide resources that actively bridge the gap between anti-mental harassment procedures and reliable practices to stop them. India Inc. is yet to conquer this goal.

Making workplaces safe is a long-term process that requires effort from the entire organization. Engaging in communication is the first step to battling mental harassment at work. However, much work is needed as we attach accountability to curb acts of mental harassment.

Curbing mental violence requires a safe workplace that promotes open communication, confidentiality, and trust. Download our checklist to see how your organization scores on resources that curb mental harassment at work.

Image source: Business Woman Headache Overtime Working by PR Image Factory, Free for Canva Pro

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About the Author

Rhea Sakhardande

I am a researcher working toward understanding the complex fabric of society. I have a Master's degree in Sociology and am currently exploring Diversity and Inclusion in corporate spaces. read more...

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