I first learned of the impact our institutions can have on our wellbeing in 2015, in a 150-person lecture hall and a class on neurobiology.
We were learning about the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and it’s role as the stress control centre of the body. These three structures in our body - the hypothalamus, and the pituitary and adrenal glands - communicate together when we experience stressful stuff. They pour us a hormone cocktail while our brain conducts risk assessments to try to understand whether we are safe or whether we are going to die.
We are learning machines, so when these structures are used regularly they respond quicker, stronger and more attentively. They are primed and ready for an environment that has proven itself to be dangerous. When the system becomes maladaptive, they respond more frequently than we need them to. This often can occur in response to post traumatic or chronic stress . It’s only through feelings of safety that we can retrain these muscles — this is why the support our workplace gives us in response to experiences of harassment, discrimination and abuse can be critical to resilience and recovery.
It was here I was introduced to betrayal trauma , a concept that changed the way I looked at trauma and ultimately led me to pursuing this PhD. In our life, not all stress is experienced equally. We suffer more when we are betrayed by someone we trust. Interpersonal violations from family or friends cause more severe psychological and physical health outcomes than from strangers. This phenomenon has been documented in the childcare system, in the military, universities, churches, and others throughout scholarly research , especially in regard to sexual violence. Like betrayal trauma, institutional betrayal comes from the wrongdoings committed against us by an organisation or system we thought was there to keep us safe.
Illuminated by the battle cries of #MeToo, institutional betrayal tolerates sexual violence at all levels. Sexual harassment has been the subject of much research focus for the last thirty years, and the field has much to show for scholarly effort. Research is beginning to look at context. We now understand that the most significant predictor of sexual harassment in the workplace is organisational culture — the shared beliefs, perceptions, attitudes and practices of people throughout the institution, and specifically how intolerant they are towards harassment .
Soon after I graduated from Michigan State University in 2016, the administration came under investigation for the role it played in relation to Larry Nassar, one of the largest sexual abuse scandals in United States sports history . One by one, women came forward to share their stories of harassment and molestation following appointments, visits and consultations with Nassar. His misconduct reached 150 girls and women during his time at the university and as the Olympic team’s doctor.
In the wake of huge social movements like #TimesUp and #MeToo, it begs the question: why are universities still the second most likely workplaces to struggle with sexual harassment and misconduct ? And as the narrative around workplace harassment changes, it’s critical that we understand what impact these institutional decisions are having on people in cases like these.
I began exploring these questions this past March, when I accepted a research position at the Eleanor Glanville Centre at the University of Lincoln in the United Kingdom. So far, here’s what I’ve learned:
- When organisations and workplaces allow harassment to go unchecked or swept under the rug, these actions create hostile environments for employees that severely affect their mental health. This is one type of institutional betrayal that can cause additional trauma to those who are already negatively affected by harassment, and is associated with higher rates of post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety and physical health concerns . Others can include covering up allegations, being more concerned with reputation than safety, or making it difficult to report abuse.
- Harassment in the workplace can negatively affect us all. Witnessing or hearing about harassment, even if you are not the direct target of abuse, is known as bystander harassment. Bystander harassment has been linked to burnout, less satisfaction and more antisocial behaviour at work , and it doesn’t just affect women. Men are also negatively impacted by their experiences of bystander harassment.
- Stress is cumulative, and it has a negative impact on our body long-term. Chronic stress like sexual harassment or discrimination can cause the hormone cortisol to build up and over time it takes a toll. These are known as diseases of adaptation, and can impact a number of systems, including the cardiovascular and digestive systems . A large majority of working women not only experience sexual harassment, but witness or hear about it in the workplace as well. Nearly 65% of women in a 2006 study had experienced both direct and bystander harassment , how do you think that’s impacting their health?
It’s no surprise perhaps that the American Psychological Association has deemed sexual harassment a chronic workplace stressor and a public health crisis. It is a barrier to career success and safety for many women, and disproportionately affects women of colour, lesbian, bisexual and transwomen the most. Women with multiple oppressed identities are more likely to experience multiple types of harassment — making this a staunch issue of inequality and injustice in the workplace.