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Workplace banter undermining women's mental health

Women are more likely to suffer low confidence and mental health issues as a result of workplace banter, according to research

An Institute of Leadership & Management survey found that women were twice as likely (20%) to feel less confident than male colleagues because of the negative banter they experienced. One in 10 (10%) women said banter had a negative effect on their mental health, compared to just 3% of men.

The survey also revealed that those at the midway point in their careers (31- to 40-year-olds) are most affected by 'banter'. This age group reported loss in confidence, compromised performance, and poor mental health due to experiencing negative banter. They also avoided work situations and skipped work social events as a result.

The findings showed that more than a third (31%) of graduate trainees have been embarrassed by banter, and people in their first job are more likely (25%) to avoid work socials than any other group as a result of this.

The research comes amid ongoing concerns surrounding sexual harassment in the workplace. A study by the TUC and Everyday Sexism recently found that 52% of women had been subjected to unwanted behaviour including groping, sexual advances, and inappropriate jokes in the workplace, with nearly one in three (32%) subject to unwelcome jokes of a sexual nature at work.

However, nearly two-thirds of men (65%) surveyed by the Institute of Leadership & Management said they were more likely to initiate banter with themselves as the subject of the joke. They were also more likely than women to directly challenge the behaviour (73% of men compared to 55% of women) if they felt it crossed the line.

Age was found to be an important factor, with 70% of staff above the age of 60 or those in more senior positions (79% of senior managers) being more likely to challenge or report inappropriate office banter than their younger or less senior colleagues.

The report explored the topics of banter, with age rated as the most common topic for 71% of respondents. There were a number of areas considered out of bounds – with the most inappropriate cited as medical issues and mental health (68%).

Despite the perceived negative effects of banter, 73% of respondents wouldn’t ban it in the workplace, with only 5% saying that they would do so. Seventy-six per cent of men and 56% of women said they used banter to get to know their colleagues better. Almost three-quarters (74%) said their organisation didn’t have a policy on banter or didn’t know if one existed.

Kate Cooper, head of research, policy and standards at the Institute of Leadership & Management, warned that while having a joke with colleagues can be part of good working culture, failing to address negative comments can risk affecting staff engagement and morale.

“Our research clearly shows that workplace banter is a part of everyday life that can have a positive effect on team spirit and creates a fun work environment. It’s an important part of our work culture," she said. "However, it can still have damaging effects on performance, confidence and mental health when it crosses the line and is used inappropriately.

"Our findings even revealed that one in 25 people left a job because of negative banter, which in turn creates additional costs for recruitment – the cost of hiring a new member of staff can rise to as much as approximately £30,000 for some senior workers, which can become an expensive problem if more and more staff leave because of this issue."

Employers need to set boundaries, Cooper added. “Getting the banter balance right is tough, so it’s important employers recognise the serious impact it can have and put robust measures in place to make sure banter is kept within appropriate boundaries," she said. "We spend such a large part of our lives at work so we need to enjoy it without making it hard for others.”

The Institute of Leadership & Management surveyed more than 1,000 of its members for its Banter: just a bit of fun or crossing the line? report.

Making inappropriate jokes or suggestive comments counts as sexual harassment under the Equalities Act 2010.