Workplace bullying may increase during the working-from-home period


The founder and director of Bullyology, Jessica Hickman, on why bullying during working-from-home may increase

The founder and director of Bullyology, Jessica Hickman

Expert

By Jessica Hickman

 We all know what’s happening in the world right now, but what seems to be hidden, dismissed and less talked about is the resulting increase in  ‘working-from-home bullying’. 

For those who suffer work-related bullying (in or out of the office), harassment and/or domestic violence, the wholesale changes to work locations and dynamics that have arisen because of this medical crisis can be extremely frightening. 

I was recently interviewed about some of the challenges and unexpected wins people might face while working during this pandemic. Here’s my take on the most salient points: 

  • Now, more than ever, business leaders need to have their fingers firmly on the pulse of the entire organisation, ensuring all management and staffare forward-thinking and working together to facilitate the psychological  and  physical wellbeing of all concerned.  
  • Work-from-home issues can include increased anxiety and a misinterpretation of emails regarding health advice and policies. There’s a real danger that new work conditions and increased self-isolation may create a climate where bullying is harder to pick up and where effective communication deteriorates because some team members are ‘out of sight, out of mind’.   
  • We all miss and crave the human element, body language and those reassuring social interactions that remind us that we’re a valued and vital part of a collective effort. Fortunately, we’re supremely adaptable animals. We can change quickly and positively if we’re properly motivated and have a clear path forward. The key to thriving in these frustrating and difficult times is to think of ways in which we can deepen our connection to self, others and our organisations. 

 The main bullying problems when working-from-home:

  • Misinterpreted emails 
  • Isolation and  loneliness  intruding on our rational thinking 
  • Miscommunication 
  • Lack of body language and human connection 
  • Heightened emotions and the deflecting of our fears and anxieties onto others 
  • Frustration at the sheer scope of new work-from-home challenges 
  • Lack of training and clear processes for the ‘new normal 
  • Assuming it’s business as usual when it comes to communication  
  • No firm work boundaries – calls and emails out of hours /added pressure 

Leaders and managers must do the following to deal with bullying effectively:

  • Think about how you’re going to manage complaints in the new structure 
  • Revise your reporting guidelines as applicable 
  • Handle complaints immediately – there is added danger with distance and anxiety 
  • Maslows  Hierarchy of Needs – safety is the priority: when an employee’s safety is compromised, heightened emotions lead to reduced productivity 
  • Beware of sending insensitive emails – they cause distress, distrust and organisational breakdowns  
  • Be curious, empathetic  and caring with regards to family dynamics – work-from-home parents with limited resources are especially vulnerable to extra stress

Top tips

  • Review your mechanisms for performance managementand be flexible. 
  • Consistently connect and communicate with teams via video calls, phone chats and group emails. 
  • Who is supporting the leadership? Do you need more input from HR, additional online training or mental health support? Get help where it’s needed.   
  • Build a team of upstanders, using a point of reference to check in on teammates. 
  • Outsource and invest in education and awareness of bullying/organisational culture

One of the most notable aspects of current COVID-19 work relations is how email communication has assumed an even greater importance. Unfortunately, an email doesn’t always express the full sentiment or intention behind it and can easily be misinterpreted – especially when anxiety and frustrations are heightened. 

Why might bullying actually increase in these circumstances?

It’s inevitable that in the months ahead, we’ll see more bullying complaints directly related to work emails. There are several reasons for this: 

  1. The dramatic and sudden increase in people working from home is brand new to many businesses – and they’ll need time to adapt to new communication norms 
  2. Emails that might have received a near-instant response in a traditional office setting may take longer to answer by work-from-homers who are juggling family commitments 
  3. Aggressive managers and toxic co-workers who might think twice about bullying in person may fell less constrained online, where behavioural ‘peer pressure’ is less obvious 
  4. Bullying typically preys on a victim’s sense of isolation, which only increases when they’re working from home 

In situations where a percentage of staff are working from home and a ‘skeleton crew’ is still at the office, bullying targets may feel more at risk without their usual support crew physically close at hand. Chronic bullies are opportunists, and the COVID-19 situation may provide new chances for bullies to single out, ostracise, ignore, berate and intimidate those who they view as convenient targets for their increasing frustrations. 

What employers and managers can do

Don’t use the pandemic as an excuse to put the brakes on Professional Development. Most of the training you might have completed through face-to-face workshops can now just as easily be accomplished online, either as a group (through video conferencing) or one-on-one. 

Remind all employees that professionalism, respect and civility are a permanent part of their job description, whether working from home or not. They also need to appreciate the importance of looking after the security of confidential information and IT security from home. 

There are a range of handy online tools that can help make the transition to at-home working easier for everyone. Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype, Slack, Basecamp, Google Hangouts, Toggl and numerous other programs can boost productivity, enhance communication and maintain team spirit during this medical crisis; use whatever helps you all get the job done. Other apps can help track hours worked remotely. 

It doesn’t hurt to schedule a ‘virtual coffee break time’ during the day, too, where employees can touch base with their colleagues through Zoom (or similar) in an informal social setting for 10-15 minutes – in other words, the digital equivalent of chatting around the water cooler.  

Look for ways to keep the work climate fun and positive through the use of appropriate digital technology – workers need to be reminded that even though they’re working from home, they’re not alone. Yes, sitting in front of the laptop in your slippers is going to feel different, but remote work needn’t adversely affect your health, well-being or overall productivity.  

Now, more than ever, all employees need to know that their employers, managers and co-workers ‘have their backs’, and each of us must strive to develop efficient work-from-home habits that can keep us going in the face of adversity. 


Jessica Hickman is the founder and director of Bullyology. Turning the adversity of her own workplace bullying experience into positive change, Jessica now helps others understand the complex nature of modern bullying.

Read Jessica’s advice on surviving workplace bullying here. 

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