Unwanted sexual attention at work and long-term sickness absence: a follow-up register-based study

BMC Public Health. 2016 Jul 30:16:678. doi: 10.1186/s12889-016-3336-y.


Background: The current understanding of the relationship between unwanted sexual attention at work and long-term sickness absence (LTSA) is limited for three reasons: 1) the under-researched role of unwanted sexual attention perpetrated by individuals outside the work organization; 2) a widespread use of self-reported measures of sickness absence, with an unclear identification of sickness absence episodes of long duration; 3) the cross-sectional design of most existing studies. The aim of this study was therefore to investigate the relationship between self-reported unwanted sexual attention at work and subsequent LTSA (≥3 weeks), stratifying by gender and source of exposure (i.e., colleagues, managers and/or subordinates vs. clients/customers/patients).

Methods: This prospective study is based on a pooled sample of 14,605 employees from three Danish surveys conducted in 2000, 2004 and 2005, providing a total of 19,366 observations. A single questionnaire-based item was used to assess exposure to unwanted sexual attention. The pooled dataset was merged with Danish register data on LTSA. The risk of first-onset episode of LTSA (up to 18 months after baseline) in connection with unwanted sexual attention was examined using Cox proportional hazards models. We estimated Hazard ratios (HR) and 95 % confidence intervals (95 % CI) adjusted for age, influence at work, work pace, occupational group and mode of data collection. We also adjusted for repeated measures from individual respondents by stratifying the Cox models by wave of survey.

Results: Unwanted sexual attention from colleagues, managers and/or subordinates predicted LTSA among men (HR 2.66; 95 % CI 1.42-5.00). Among women, an elevated but non-statistically significant risk of LTSA (HR 1.18; 95 % CI 0.65-2.14) was found. Unwanted sexual attention from clients/customers/patients did not predict LTSA, neither among men nor among women.

Conclusions: The findings indicate a significantly elevated risk of LTSA, among men only, in relation to exposure to unwanted sexual attention from colleagues, managers and/or subordinates. This study therefore suggests both individual and organizational costs associated with unwanted sexual attention at work. Due to the low prevalence of unwanted sexual attention, larger studies with more statistical power are needed to confirm (or disconfirm) the present findings.

Keywords: Bullying; Gender differences; Long-term sickness absence; Sexual harassment; Unwanted sexual attention.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Denmark / epidemiology
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Occupational Health Services
  • Proportional Hazards Models
  • Prospective Studies
  • Registries
  • Sexual Harassment*
  • Sick Leave / statistics & numerical data*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires