In this article we are looking to explore the nexus between the POSH Law and Mental Health and Wellbeing concerns by exploring the psychosocial impact that may come through during the processes and practices we undertake at the workplace as part of compliances relating to The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal Act), 2013 [POSH Law].
This act has been enacted in response to recognizing the vulnerabilities and risks faced by women when it comes to sexual harassment in the context of the workplace and clearly describes behaviours that come under the definition of sexual harassment. Moreover, the Law highlights that sexual harassment may occur when power dynamics are at play through Quid pro Quo, as well as that sexual harassment that may arise through the creation of a Hostile Work Environment.
“EVERY EMPLOYER SHALL:
(A) PROVIDE A SAFE WORKING ENVIRONMENTAT THE WORKPLACE SHALL INCLUDE SAFETY FROM THE PERSON COMING INTO CONTACT AT THE WORKPLACE
In addition, the Law also highlights a specific process for redressal, identifying key stakeholders and their responsibilities towards prevention, prohibition and redressal of sexual harassment incidents at the workplace.
Moreover, section 19 of the Law in its framing, sets a larger more inclusive view of the scope and intention of the Law, stating:
“…employer shall provide a safe working environment… shall include safety from the persons coming into contact at the workplace.”
In doing so, the Law does value and protect systems and practices that support the safety and wellbeing of all employees at the workplace and have designated the responsibility of establishing a safe working environment to the employer.
Keeping Section 19 in mind, as people working in this space as IC members, HR/ decision makers and leaders of organisations, must strive to go beyond the mandatory requirements of the Law and ensure that wellbeing of all those that may be impacted by our internal policies and practices relating to the POSH Law is also accounted for while implementing the provisions of the Law.
Impact of Sexual Harassment:
When exploring the connections between POSH Law and Mental Health, we must begin by understanding that the experience of sexual harassment is a traumatic event, with often long-term impact to mental health and wellbeing. Immediate impact can look like increased stress and anxiety, with the potential to trigger depression, panic attacks and even Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This can also impact confidence, increase a sense of insecurity and fear, and impact existing relationships both personal and professional. Given societal stigma surrounding the topic of give way to guilt, self-directed anger and self-blame, regardless of who is experiencing the sexual violation. A person (male) who experienced sexual harassment from a male colleague said while sharing the experience with me “I can’t believe it happened to me, I’m a big guy… I used to think and say to my friends – fight it, kick them off – but in that moment, I myself was frozen.” This made it harder for him to even talk about the incident, even when reporting and redressal mechanisms were available to him.
While most of the impact is invisible to others, we may notice impact visibly also in terms of heightened emotional states at work, decreasing interactions within the team, decreased motivation and efficiency and may even manifest as absenteeism or presenteeism.
How can policy and practice impact mental health and wellbeing in relation to POSH LAW?
While the experience of sexual harassment at work can, in itself bring with it deep impact to mental health and wellbeing, as leaders, we need to also keep in mind that our policies and practices with regard to implementing the Law – both formal and informal- can also impact wellbeing of different stakeholders in myriad ways. Listed below are some points on how the provisions of the POSH Law (2013) and Mental Health concerns tend to intersect:
- Scope of policy: The scope of the Law is gender specific, and applicable to women only. This is in recognition of the systemic and historical oppression of women, and the vulnerabilities faced by women including at the workplace. However, many organisations are recognising that women are not the only vulnerable group in the workplace context, and that sexual harassment could happen to anyone.
Understanding this has led to these organisations expanding the scope of internal policy extending the same redressal mechanisms and other provisions, to all employees through gender fluid / gender neutral policies.
This not only ensures compliance with the Law is in place, but also underscores the zero tolerance of the organisation towards acts of sexual violations – irrespective of gender of the person experiencing the behaviour in a fair and sensitive manner. This sets a context of parity at work, and promotes the idea that all employees have the same right to redressal and protection at work from sexual violations, which in turn supports a sense of wellbeing – in the assurance that all employees will be supported and protected against acts of sexual harassment, minimizing the potential for any sort of discrimination, particularly against other groups in need of protection at work, like the queer community.
While this is ideal, organisations with a gender specific policy can also consider the need to establish clear and distinct mechanisms for redressal of sexual harassment complaints raised by other genders – including men and transmen. This information of existing provisions under policy needs to be shared with employees using the same vigour and focus that is used when sharing POSH related details on email and other communication channels, through posters in conspicuous places and even through the training and awareness programs. We need to remember that the absence of policy and protocol may have a detrimental impact on wellbeing, leading to a sense of insecurity and fear and also inadvertently promoting a culture of silence around sexual violations experienced by other genders.
- Filing a complaint: While we understand that the experience of the sexual harassment is a traumatic event – we tend to overlook that the act of filing a complaint while experiencing the trauma and uncertainty in the aftermath of the incident itself is a daunting task. This is further complicated due to typically socially conditioned responses that downplay impact (“Well, what did you expect?”/ “That’s just how it is”) and tend to victim blame (“Why did you go there in the first place?” / “Haven’t you always talked openly about your sexuality?” / “Are you sure you didn’t give out misleading signals?”).
There is so much that is already internalized about the reasons why sexual violations occur (which tend to blame the victim) that a person may already be thinking some of these things. The thought of hearing them from a person that one is close to, or that one respects at work is an obstacle to reporting behaviour.
This is also an unfortunate reality in certain spaces, where people who are the first responders in such cases may not have had the proper training into handling these cases respectfully and with empathy.
The nature of informal conversations at work, the chats on WhatsApp and other informal platforms including those ‘jokes’ steeped in casual sexism that are shared and laughed at may also cement the uncertainty one may feel regarding whether they will be treated fairly or sensitively when filing a complaint.
Lastly lack of awareness about processes that are in place and lack of familiarity with the IC members and the organisation’s stance against sexual harassment at work, power dynamics that may enter the scenario, treatment of previous cases at work formally and informally and the constant threat of adverse impact to one’s reputation, growth, career and personal life, may also act as obstacles to reporting behaviour and make it harder for people to file a complaint.
- Access to training and awareness programs: Access to effective training programs may go a long way to minimize some of the impact that we have discussed so far.
Effective programs, however, must spotlight:
- The stance of the Organisation as being one of zero tolerance to sexual harassment at work
- Highlight employees’ rights and duties under Law and through policy
- Explain redressal processes and identify key persons (IC members) and methods of filing complaints
- Address social conditioning and lay out organisational expectations of professional behaviour through discussing components of mental health and wellbeing, gender and sexuality, personal boundaries and the dynamics of consent, unconscious bias, casual sexism, micro aggressions, etc.
- Identify and encourage usage of therapeutic support services and systems (destigmatizing mental health spaces and concerns)
Trainings must also impart skill to IC members and other first responders to know their roles and responsibilities as per Law and understand how to respond to sexual harassment cases with empathy, sensitivity and efficiently.
Investing energy and resources in the above may encourage persons experiencing distress post such incidents to be empowered to file a complaint, increasing faith in management and IC, and may also assist people to engage with the thoughts that are self- limiting, blaming and tend to impede the process. Moreover, being aware of and able to access channels of active support is also extremely empowering.
- Impact of Inquiry as a process:
Post filing a complaint, the ensuing process of redressal can carry a psychosocial impact for all those who are a part of it. We have seen this impact not just with the complainant or the aggrieved individual but even the accused or the respondent, any witnesses called upon during the process and even the members of the Internal Committee while inquiring into the complaint. This impact can look like re-traumatization, felt effects of discrimination and micro aggressions, shunning at work or isolation from the team and can even lead to reputational damage and loss of work for the parties. IC members and Witnesses may also experience vicarious trauma, depending on what they have heard or witnessed during the incident or proceedings as well. Often be deep rooted and may even require professional therapeutic support to process and move forward from. It is essential to therefore ensure that we are able to provide supportive systems and channels to our employees through EAP services, reimbursements for therapeutic support, access to support groups or ERGs, and support through the process from team members and management.
If you would like to work with us to support your employees and build robust, progressive and inclusive policies and practice, write to us on firstname.lastname@example.org