Does working from home keep targets safer from workplace bullying?

Workplaces must become smarter in developing and implementing systems and processes to address bullying in every environment. It is not just about systems of detection and reporting, but processes that prevent bullying including effective change management and ensuring employee role clarity. But if poorly implemented, it can result in increased employee anxiety, conflict and escalation to bullying, writes Michael Plowright, Director, Working Well Together Pty Ltd

The issues and dialogue around returning to the workplace is intense with divergent perspectives and debate. Given the magnitude of how the pandemic changed the way we worked overnight this is not surprising.

Every aspect of culture, mental health, teamwork and productivity was challenged and altered in 2020. Bullying behaviours escalated and expanded.

Pre-existing issues of bullying were often magnified coupled with an emergence of new behavioural problems, targets and bullies. Targets were staff from management, co-workers to co-workers and an increase of staff bullying management.

Ensuring employees are mentally safe and well regardless of location is a legal requirement for all employers.

Working from home data
Data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicate that before March 2020, 12 per cent of employees worked from home most days.

By late April 2020, this figure had increased to 46 per cent working from home declining to 31 per cent in September.

Of note, 70 per cent of Australians who have been working from home would like to continue doing so according to Melbourne University’s the Pulse of the Nation survey.

The University of Sydney Business School also found 75 per cent of workers believe employers will support future work from home plans.

Assumptions
With the shift from offices to working from home it could be assumed that bullying targets would be safer.

For some, this might be, or perceived to be the case. But as I uncovered in my recent investigation this was not true. The investigation presents valid signposts for HR leaders to be aware of as they circumnavigate new 2021 working frameworks.

Working from home bullying survey
In mid-2020 I explored, via an online survey whether working from home as a result of COVID-19 restrictions mitigated workplace bullying as experienced by targeted employees.

Whilst a moderate number of respondents participated, the results provide a solid indicator of the issues and considerations that HR leaders need to factor.

Feedback
Respondents unanimously indicated that working from home did not reduce the risks of workplace bullying. 48 per cent still experienced the same bullying prior to COVID-19.

Respondents were asked whether they felt the bullying had increased or decreased and why this might be the case. The following addresses specific elements and percentages of bullied respondent’s feedback

I am experiencing bullying more frequently – 28.5 per cent

 “It has increased I think because of the bully’s frustration that they have lost their control to an extent. The bullies pressured me and my team to return to the workplace in lockdown“

“My supervisor still ignores follow up from me. From home there is no way to contact her. I can’t go to her PA to pass a message. I find it impossible to carry out my responsibilities and lead my team”

I am experiencing bullying less often – 28.5 per cent

 “Because I am able to have more work flexibility which removes me from the environment. The stress remains because you know you still have to work with bullies

I am no longer experiencing any bullying – 28.5 per cent

My employment was terminated by the bully

Analysis
Bullies terminating employees highlight an interesting outcome. 34 per cent of respondents had been made redundant by their employer, whilst 25 per cent had resigned by the time they had completed the survey.

This raises questions as to whether COVID-19 was purely opportunistic to terminate targets. It could be suggested that such terminations was part of obstinate bullying experiences.

When asked the question, had bullying tactics changed due to COVID-19 and remote working, 65 per cent replied in the affirmative as follows:

“They infiltrated my team, and totally undermined me“

“Although a peer, acting as if they were my manager & assigning my work, promoting themselves at anyone else’s expense in front of the executive team“

“Attempts to make one look as though one is not working efficiently and abusing the ability to work at home“

“The behaviours seemed to intensify and expand further“

Some respondents did feel safer at home but acknowledged it was ‘perceived safety’ with the possibility behaviours were occurring behind their back. A context of out of sight out of mind. However, it did bring a sense of relief as one respondent shared:

“Working from home has been bliss. I feel bad for being, in a way, grateful to this horrible lethal virus for saving me from a toxic workplace”

Unsurprisingly, returning to the office post COVID-19 was generally seen as something most targets wanted to avoid. When offered a hybrid, home or office environment post COVID-19, 71 per cent of targets chose working at home full time and 29 per cent hybrid.

Stress levels when contemplating a return to the actual office was ranked at 9.5/10. This compares to working from home and the stress level due to the bullying at 7/10. This reinforces the reduction in stress of working from home when it comes to workplace bullying.

This raises questions as to whether COVID-19 was purely opportunistic to terminate targets. It could be suggested that such terminations was part of obstinate bullying experiences.

Smarter detection systems and processes
Putting in place early detection systems is essential as workplaces offer hybrid and full working from home models.

As indicated from responses, it’s clear that bullying does not cease but morphs into different behaviours and tactics including termination or redundancy.

Workplaces must become smarter in developing and implementing systems and processes to address bullying in every environment. It is not just about systems of detection and reporting, but processes that prevent bullying including effective change management and ensuring employee role clarity. But if poorly implemented, it can result in increased employee anxiety, conflict and escalation to bullying.

Leaders are key in creating cultures where connection is fostered, people learn and feel safe raising concerns with effective and regular team communication. Ensuring employees are mentally safe and well regardless of location is a legal requirement for all employers.

Addressing this is critical going forward.

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