Recently, a friend and I were talking about a fairly senior colleague at a company we worked at, who would throw work out of the window if she was not satisfied with the work quality (yes, this was in the pre-digitisation era when a lot of work would still be presented in the form of typed up reports). It was… harassment, right? As young employees early on in our career, we lacked the knowledge and vocabulary to call it out as harassment.
Twenty years later, while there has been a lot more conversation about sexual harassment in the workplace, mental harassment remains a severely under-addressed issue, and a problem for many women. From being jeered at for “leaving work early” (if they don’t work late) to not being considered for promotions because “you don’t socialise enough”, I’ve heard from any number of women who meet with small and large incidents of such harassment.
Of course, it’s not that only women are subjected to mental harassment or other forms of harassment. Yet, we have to consider the power dynamics in most workplaces; when we look at the composition of managerial or leadership teams in most companies in India, it still remains overwhelmingly male. In such a situation, it’s not surprising that women tend to more often be victims of such harassment.
There’s also the problem that compared to other forms of harassment, the issue of psychological violence at work remains grossly under-discussed. If you don’t understand what it is, and you don’t have a vocabulary to articulate it, how then do you even complain about it or seek redressal?
Recently at Women’s Web, we conducted a study on Women’s Experiences of Mental Harassment at Work which revealed that over 40% of women do not trust their HR department enough to share their concerns around this issue. What this means is that even women who acknowledge certain kinds of behaviour as mental harassment in the workplace refrain from reporting them due to unreliable HR teams.
The responses that women give when asked what organisations can do better, are revealing, in terms of how our fundamental understanding of the issue is flawed. As one woman put it, “Since I work in higher education, psychological and mental harassment often tends to be overlooked as ‘petty politics’, being largely understood as something that cannot be done away with. Ever.”
Others spoke about HR departments and processes that did not really make the employee feel comfortable that their complaint would be kept confidential or taken seriously.
Due to the lack of clear reporting channels at the employer end and the fear of being recognised and punished, it is natural that women prefer discussing their experiences with a trusted group of friends and families over their HR team, managers, or co-workers.
To complicate matters more, in many cases, it is either direct managers or senior leaders who engage in the mental harassment of employees. Unless organisations have robust mechanisms to deal with such behaviour, women think it is a waste of time to discuss or report the covert form of harassment that psychological violence is.
When we consider Indian women’s participation in the paid workforce, the numbers already paint a dismal picture. Women handle a disproportionate amount of household work while grappling with high-pressure environments at work.
The issue is accelerated when women witness their organisation's laid-back attitude in ensuring their safety. Close to 60% of the women who participated in our survey stated that their organisation did not offer any support even after they raised concerns about mental harassment in the workplace. If women have to deal with this tiresome dual burden while also grappling with a toxic workplace, it is not surprising that they would rather ‘quiet quit’ - a trend that has been widely reported in recent times. The same would also apply to people from the LGBTQIA+ community who are often targeted for their gender or sexual orientation.
The onus falls on us to build safe workplaces in actionable terms, moving beyond passive dialogue. We as leaders need to check and recheck the following elements comprehensively:
- Are our employees aware of what constitutes mental harassment?
- Do we have clear policies and practices on how we tackle workplace harassment and are all employees aware of these? (Accessible reporting channels, Confidentiality of the complaint, Bias-free examination of the complaint - as with POSH complaints, these are some of the basic measures that need to be in place)
- Do managers have clarity on how to address mental harassment at work and how to help the employees who experience it?
- How are leaders accountable for their actions in tackling mental harassment at work?
What happens if we don’t solve this problem? Women will continue quitting the workplace and withdraw their participation. As a result, we are likely to face further gaps in gender parity. Simultaneously, we will keep losing out on talent, reflecting in poor business outcomes.
As leaders, we need to aim higher; organisations have been adopting POSH guidelines because they are mandatory but functioning by mandate alone is not a great idea. We need to strengthen diversity and inclusion policies and practices in ways that tackle harassment of all kinds, if we want to build safer workplaces for everyone, and retain women at the workplace.
A complete overview of our study on workplace harassment and women at work, as well as a checklist for creating safer workplaces is available here.