Is bullying and harassment on the rise?
Psychological Health

Is bullying and harassment on the rise?
#MeToo and beyond

The history

In 2007, the phrase “me too” was used by Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, to support sexual harassment victims and help them speak up. The phrase became a global phenomenon a decade later, when Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein, was accused of harassment by several women, most of them being actresses who had worked with him.

Bullying and harassment at the workplace has probably always been present in some form or another; however the first known use of the term “sexual harassment” was in 1973, in Kosovo of all places__¹__. The recent #MeToo movement, along with the rise of social media and internet have made it a relevant hot topic.

Harassment is any unwanted physical or verbal behaviour that offends, humiliates or intimidates the victim.

Workplace bullying has been defined as “a situation in which one or more persons systematically and over a long period of time perceive themselves to be on the receiving end of negative treatment on the part of one or more persons, in a situation in which the person exposed to the treatment has difficulty in defending themselves against this treatment”².

Several other definitions exist, and have evolved over the past few decades due to a rise in campaigns such as the #Metoo movement. Earlier, people were not quite ‘aware’. The term "sexual harassment" was so foreign to the Japanese that they had to borrow the English version of it to create a new word “sekuhara” to describe it in the 1980’s__³__. It was not that the concept was unfamiliar to Japanese women; it was just that their social norms and culture did not allow them to speak about it.


Studies across Europe and North America indicate that 10% to 15% of the workforce is exposed to workplace bullying and harassment__⁴__. This percentage is most likely understated as victims are often unsure of what qualifies as harassment, and what to do when they're being harassed or bullied, therefore it often goes unreported and continues to be an issue. As a result of women around the globe continuing to revolt against oppression and inequity this has started to change...

Sexual Harassment2

According to a survey conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission, 21% of people aged 15 and older have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, and it continues to affect women more than men. Overall the survey showed an increase in reporting in the past few years, as 39% of women were reported to be sexually harassed in 2018 up from 25% in 2012, whilst 26% of men said they had been harassed in 2018 up from 16% in 2012__⁵__. Australian experts concluded that the rise in reporting rates was due to the hype created by the #MeToo movement.

In culturally subdued countries, such as India and Japan, the movement took a bit more time to spread, and its effects became visible almost a year later. According to recent data collected by the Indian government, reported cases of sexual harassment increased by 54% in the past four years. They still have a long way to go, as a survey conducted by the Indian Bar Association reported that about 70% of women avoid speaking up about sexual harassment by their superiors at work due to feared consequences__⁶__.

Similarly, Japanese culture does not teach people to say “NO”, which, along with lack of legal protection has made Japanese working women highly vulnerable to harassment. Being silent is a common tradition in oppressed cultures. An app called DigiPolice has been launched in Japan that allows victims of groping and harassment in trains to activate a voice on their phone to call for help or simply say “Stop it!” Recently, celebrities and social activists have started to speak up and are trying to create awareness amongst young women to protect themselves in a country where their culture fails to do so__⁸__.

The aftermath

Regardless of the country or culture, bullying and harassment at any workplace can have negative consequences for both the victims and the organisations. It can ruin a great job and turn the workplace into a toxic and unproductive environment.

As concluded in a meta-analysis published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, “workplace bullying, because of its severe personal and organisational effects, detracts from the development and maintenance of vital, diverse and productive workplaces.”

Workplace bullying not only effects the victims but also their families, co-workers and friends, leading to severe consequences on psychological wellbeing, physical health, and work-life balance, along with decreased creativity, low morale and poor performance. Bullying damages social life, damages self-esteem and decreases the motivation to go to work due to the fear of being bullied. Organisations should encourage employees to speak up against harassment at work, and make the practice an integral part of their work culture. A strict policy regarding bullying and harassment should be deployed in order to take disciplinary actions when needed. By doing so, the company will allow for a safe and healthy working environment where the employees feel protected, increasing employee engagement and commitment along with enhanced productivity. Moreover, bully-free workplaces have a lower turnover and higher attendance compared to companies where harassment goes on unchecked.

SHAPE considers bullying at work to be a serious and consequential issue. The survey looks at various aspects of workplace bullying whether it is verbal, physical, sexual or discriminatory and identifies whether the perpetrator is a superior, an equal or a subordinate, male or female. This allows companies to understand the frequency, impact and type of bullying that occurs in the workplace, enabling the formulation of policies to deter such acts and take relevant actions when needed.

For employees, SHAPE allows anonymous reporting of any sort of bullying, by both witnesses and targets, and gives recommendations on how to inform managers about it.

__¹__Kamberi, Ferdi; Gollopeni, Besim. International Review of Social Sciences. 3:13. 2015.

__²__Matthiesen, Stig Berge, and Ståle Einarsen. Violence and Victims, vol. 22, no. 6, 2007, pp. 735–753., doi:10.1891/088667007782793174.

__³__Huen, Yuki W. P. Asian Survey, vol. 47, no. 5, 2007, pp. 811–827. doi:10.1525/as.2007.47.5.811.

__⁴__Smyth, Jamie. “Australia Reports Rise in Workplace Sexual Harassment.” Financial Times. 2018.

__⁵__Mallapur, Chaitanya, and Anmol Alphonso. “#MeTooIndia: 54% Rise In Sexual Harassment Reported At Workplaces Between 2014-17.” IndiaSpend. 2018.

__⁶__McCurry, Justin. “'Stop It!' Japanese Women Turn to App to Stop Groping on Trains.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media. 2019.

“#MeToo Japan: What Happened When Women Broke Their Silence.” BBC News. BBC. 2018.

__⁸__Bowling, Nathan A., and Terry A. Beehr. Journal of Applied Psychology, vol. 91, no. 5, 2006, pp. 998–1012., doi:10.1037/0021-9010.91.5.998.

Psychological Health