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Working conditions and sustainable work

Violence in the workplace: Women and frontline workers face higher risks

27 February 2023

Women and frontline workers are most exposed to the risks of adverse social behaviour at work, such as burnout, exhaustion, anxiety and depression. This is according to the European Working Conditions Telephone Survey 2021 (EWCTS). In this data story, we dive into EWCTS data (EU27) to examine the prevalence of adverse social behaviour in the workplace - also known as ‘violence in the workplace’ - and the health and well-being implications it has for those who experience it. 

Women more likely to experience adverse social behaviour, particularly unwanted sexual attention

The EWCTS found that, on average, 12.5% of workers in the EU experienced some form of adverse social behaviour at work in 2021; [1] however, the share of women experiencing adverse social behaviour at work was consistently higher than that of men.

While this is the case for all forms of adverse social behaviour covered in the survey, the gender gap is particularly striking when it comes to unwanted sexual attention.

Women are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from unwanted sexual attention than men. What’s more, the likelihood of a young woman (18–34 years) reporting unwanted sexual attention is three times higher than men of the same age, and 10 times higher than the oldest group of men (50+ years).

Women aged 50+ are 3.5 times less likely to report unwanted sexual attention than women aged 18–34 (1.6% compared with 5.6%).

Frontline workers most exposed to adverse social behaviour

While the EWCTS reveals that people who deal with customers are twice as likely to experience adverse social behaviour at work compared to those who don’t, the situation is particularly acute for frontline workers.

Healthcare workers reported up to three times higher levels of unwanted sexual attention than the EU average (5.7% compared with 1.7%). To put this in perspective, just 0.3% of information and communication (IC) professionals reported unwanted sexual attention.

Both healthcare and protective services workers (including fire-fighters, police officers, prison and security guards) reported 2–3 times higher levels of bullying, harassment and violence than the EU average.

A variety of frontline workers reported verbal abuse or threats, some as high as 2.5 times the EU average.

Health professionals are 3 times more likely to report unwanted sexual attention

Healthcare and protective services workers are 2–3 times more likely to report bullying, harassment and violence

Verbal abuse or threats is the most common form of adverse social behaviour directed towards frontline workers

Health implications

There is a clear link between adverse social behaviour and the share of workers reporting negative mental health and physical health outcomes – a phenomenon known as psychosocial risk.

People who experience adverse social behaviour in the workplace are around three times more likely to experience physical and emotional burnout (32% compared to 10%) and emotional exhaustion (40% compared to 14%), and almost twice as likely to suffer from anxiety (53% compared to 27%) or be at risk of depression (38% compared to 20%).

Ensuring prevention and protection is essential

Adverse social behaviour at work poses a significant risk to workers’ health and well-being. It can have a long-term impact on individuals – some studies show that the effects can linger for years after the initial incident(s) – and may also affect their families, co-workers, employers and wider social circles in general.

The EWCTS reveals that women and frontline workers are most at risk, given their higher-than-average exposure to issues such as bullying, harassment, violence, verbal abuse or threats, and unwanted sexual attention.

Given the significant psychosocial and employment-related risks (many people who experience adverse social behaviour do not see good job prospects in the near future) [2] it is imperative that public policy addresses the need for improved job quality. Both prevention and protection – including supporting victims – are key.

While there are a range of policy initiatives at EU, national, sectoral and company levels to address the issues, one third of workers who are exposed to adverse social behaviour still say that they do not get the necessary support from their management (reported by 34% of men and 29% of women).

Further reading

Image: © insta_photos/Adobe Stock


  1. ^ In the 2021 EWCTS, workers’ exposure to adverse social behaviour is captured by asking three questions: 1) ‘ Over the last month, during the course of your work have you been subjected to verbal abuse or threats?’; 2) ‘… to unwanted sexual attention?’; 3) ‘Over the past 12 months, during the course of your work have you been subjected to bullying, harassment or violence?’.
  2. ^ Respondents … tended to disagree or strongly disagree … with the statement that they see good job prospects and were more likely to agree or strongly agree with the statement that they might lose their job in the next 6 months.


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