New Paper on the Impact of Workplace Harassment on Health

May 24, 2019
flight attendant

Workplace harassment and abuse, especially against women, occur with great frequency worldwide. Estimates suggest that as many as 50% of U.S. women experience sexual harassment during their working lives, but only a minority report it. Studies indicate that workplace abuse and stress are related to poorer mental health, including sleep disorders, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and symptoms, and psychological distress.  Exposure to workplace stress has also been associated with increased musculoskeletal injuries and disorders and a higher cardiovascular risk score among flight logistic workers and flight attendants.

Flight attendants are an understudied occupational group exposed to a wide range of biological and psychosocial stressors, including cosmic ionizing radiation at altitude, severe circadian rhythm disruption, chemical contaminants in the aircraft cabin, hypoxia, noise, heavy physical, and psychological job demands, and verbal and sexual harassment (Ballard et al., 2006; Griffiths and Powell, 2012).

To our knowledge, our study is one of only a few to evaluate sexual harassment among flight attendants in relation to health and is the largest and most comprehensive study on this topic. Flight attendants are a susceptible occupational group due to employment in a mostly female profession with high emotional labor demands. Yet, no specific policies are in place for them to navigate abusive workplace interactions. 

Our findings have implications for the health of cabin crew and other health and service professionals, as well as for worker productivity.  Our findings may also be applicable to passengers, who may be subject to harassment by the same perpetrators that abuse flight crew. 

The strong associations observed in our study and other research, as well as the high prevalence of reported abuse among cabin crew, highlights the question of how workplace policies can be altered to mitigate these prevalent abuses against crew and possibly fellow passengers. For example, protocols already exist for properly training supervisors and workers in ways to handle inappropriate behaviors, for prevention and remediation of workplace abuse, and in what specifically constitutes workplace abuse (McDonald et al., 2015). Specifically, conveying that harassment is a community (rather than individual) concern, encouraging and providing multiple channels for workers to seek advice and support (including in “gray area” situations), rewarding those that take appropriate (neutral and objective) action and disincentivizing those that retaliate against the complainant, clearly stated penalties for violations and abuses, universal training across the organization as well as specific training for managers or those in positions of power, and openly and visibly stating that workplace harassment and abuse will not be tolerated are all strategies strongly supported by the literature.

Clinicians could also consider how jobs with high emotional labor demands may predispose people to adverse health outcomes from maltreatment, educate their patients or clients regarding their psychological or physical responses as well as on coping and response strategies (e.g., minimizing focus on the abuser in order to regain a sense of control), and be aware of signs of distress in patients working in such occupations. Importantly, clinicians should also be prepared to refer patients to appropriate therapies and treatments following disclosure or signs of psychological distress.

Read the full paper at this link