A new report suggests workplace sexual harassment is linked to increased risk of suicidal behaviour.

A study of 85,205 Swedish men and women of working age in paid work between 1995 and 2013 asked if they had been subjected to sexual harassment in their workplace in the past 12 months.

The harassment could have been from superiors or fellow workers, or from “other people”, such as patients, clients, passengers and students.

Any suicides or suicide attempts by these workers over an average follow up period of 13 years were identified from administrative registers.

Overall, 4.8 per cent of the workers reported workplace sexual harassment during the previous 12 months: 1.9 per cent of all men and 7.5 per cent of all women.

Those exposed were more likely to be younger, single, divorced, and in low paid but high strain jobs (high demands but low control), and born outside of Europe.

A total of 125 people died from suicide and 816 made a suicide attempt during the follow-up period, which translates to a rate of 0.1 suicides per 1,000 person years and rate 0.8 attempted suicides per 1,000 person years.

After adjusting for sociodemographic factors, exposure to workplace sexual harassment was found to be associated with a 2.82 times greater risk of suicide and 1.59 times greater risk of attempted suicide.

The increased risk estimates remained significant after adjusting for health and work characteristics, and there were no significant differences in rates between the sexes.

Sexual harassment from others was found to be more strongly associated with suicide than sexual harassment from superiors or fellow workers.

This is an observational study, so cannot establish cause, and the authors point out that their results may have been undermined by underreporting of sexual harassment because of varied attitudes towards what represents an incident, or some respondents including incidents they had witnessed.

Nevertheless they say workplace sexual harassment may “represent an important risk factor for suicidal behaviour. This suggests that workplace interventions focusing on the social work environment and behaviours could contribute to a decreased burden of suicide.”

US researchers in a linked editorial say that the most common approaches to prevention (sexual harassment training) and to mitigation (reporting or grievance procedures) have been shown to do more harm than good, so new ways to prevent and address workplace sexual harassment are urgently needed, they write.

“We believe no workplace can be considered safe unless it is free of harassment, and this issue cannot be sidelined any longer,” they say.

“Promising, evidence-based solutions exist and should be widely implemented and evaluated. Victims of sexual harassment should receive mental health screening and treatment to mitigate risks for subsequent mental health concerns and suicidality,” they conclude.

The study is accessible here.