How sexual harassment affects patients, clinicians and leaders | Behavioral Healthcare Executive Skip to content Skip to navigation

How sexual harassment affects patients, clinicians and leaders

December 1, 2017
by Julie Miller, Editor in Chief
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Behavioral health leaders might be seeing new demand in their communities for treatment of stress and trauma disorders related to sexual harassment, experts say. Not only can the recent reports about the actions of Matt Lauer, Sen. Al Franken and others trigger trauma, they can also prompt victims of similar situations to acknowledge their experiences for the first time.

“Typically in situations like this, you see more people seeking treatment than you might have in the past,” says Julie Hergenrather, PhD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in women’s issues at Geisinger in Pennsylvania.  

It’s not unusual for a victim to remain silent for years as a coping mechanism or because she is fearful of losing her job or being denigrated. Hergenrather says some women might see the national news coverage of harassment and assault stories and be emboldened to speak up at last, while others might have a sudden epiphany.

“With these stories, more women are looking back and recognizing harassment or unwanted contact that they didn’t characterize as harassment in the past,” she says. “Especially for the older generation, those close to retirement age, there was no such thing as sexual harassment, so it wasn’t talked about.”

The ongoing stories about the manipulative, exploitive behavior of otherwise lauded men has been shocking to many. But fighting sexual harassment means helping women, not just punishing men, Hergenrather says.

In the treatment space

Clinicians should be aware of their own sensitivities related to the publicly shared stories as well as the personal stories they hear from patients. It’s important for therapists to keep their own reactions in check. Hergenrather says she felt anger toward the perpetrators unmasked in the news recently, something she describes as a burning feeling.

“There’s a need to be aware of that as I treat patients because the anger is not helpful to a client,” she says.

For any clinician, the perennial rules of self-care must be practiced. Those treating victims of sexual harassment or assault also must carefully consider the client’s perception of them as clinicians.

“For male providers, it’s important that they be tactful in how they talk to clients with these experiences because often the perpetrators are male,” says Colin Mahoney, MA, resident in behavioral medicine psychology at Geisinger. “It’s important to show that you’re being an advocate, that you believe them and you support them.”

He says validating clients’ experiences will help them realize that sexual harassment isn’t something that all men do routinely.

According to Hergenrather, one significant predictor of outcomes for women seeking care after sexual harassment or assault is how family, friends, employers and the community react when the woman’s experience is brought to light. If she is supported, and people believe her, the recovery process tends to be more successful than if she is stigmatized, criticized or doubted by others.

What the public discussions over the past few weeks are revealing is that many times when women complain or report harassment by men in a workplace situation, the initial complaints are invalidated. Mahoney says it could be because the harasser is in a position of power and can shrug off the accusation through status alone or it could be because the organization simply doesn’t want to risk its reputation being compromised.

In other cases, the organization simply lacks the necessary internal policies to manage the situation.

What your organization must do now

The organizational climate of a workplace is a strong predictor of the risk for sexual harassment taking place, according to the American Psychological Association. For example, situations in which supervisors are predominantly male can skew the power proposition toward men. It’s not unusual for behavioral health facilities to employ a disproportionate number of men in management while women remain in the ranks of subordinates.

That’s why it’s important for behavioral health leaders to talk about the recent accusations against powerful men who allegedly or admittedly committed acts of sexual harassment against female business colleagues and direct reports. Sexual harassment training should be included in employee onboarding and revisited on a regular basis, experts say.

“With sexual harassment allegations splattered in headlines, it’s clear that employers need more understanding and recognition of harassment behaviors,” says Jennifer Lee Magas, MA, JD, clinical associate professor of public relations at Pace University.

Magas offers three tips for organization leaders about training your staff:

  • Training should happen at least once a year, depending on the turnover rate at your company.
  • Must-have topics include: the different definitions of harassment; the company’s policy; how to recognize signs of harassment; employee rights in the workplace; and how to report harassment.
  • Trainings should include a sign-in sheet, and online training should include a unique password for each employee to track completion.

One of the most challenging situations that leaders and human resource professionals might face is when one employee accuses another employee of violating harassment rules. In cases of he said/she said, find out if the victim can provide proof of harassment.

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