The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way we work almost overnight. To reduce the transmission of the virus and maintain continuity of employment during the pandemic, some governments have instructed where employees can work from home, they must work from home. Data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicate that before March 2020, 12% of people with a job worked from home most days. By late April 2020, this figure had increased to 46% of Australians working from home May, declining to 31% in September.

With a move from an office based to home based location, it could be assumed that employees being targeted with bullying would be safe and it be mitigated.

While for some, this might be, or perceived to be the case, it may not be for others as we uncovered in our recent investigation.

Our Investigation

Earlier this year, we set out to explore the question did working from home as a result of COVID-19 mitigate workplace bullying experienced by targeted employees. To uncover the answer, we promoted an online survey that participants could opt into providing those insights. There were 11 respondents of which 7 met the criteria. While this number of responses doesn’t provide us with a good sample, it does provide us with an indication of issues and considerations when it comes to answering this question.

Has working from home mitigated the risk of workplace bullying?

As to this key question, whether working from home mitigated the risk of workplace bullying, our respondents indicate that working from home does not mitigate the risk of workplace bullying. Of the respondents, 5 indicated they still experienced workplace bullying after commencing working from home.

Respondents were asked whether they felt the bullying had increased or decreased and why this might be the case. These question bought the following responses.

I am experiencing bullying more often (n=2)

  • 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 at about the same level (n=1)

  • No comment

I am experiencing bullying less often (n=2)

  • “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 (n=2)

  • My employment was terminated by the bully.

The last comment above is most interesting and highlights an interesting outcome. Of the seven respondents, three had been made redundant by their employer, while two had left their employment by the time they had completed the survey. This raises questions as to whether COVID has been an opportunistic event to terminate targets employment. Effectively it could be suggested that the termination is part of the bullying experience for those employees.

When asked the question, had the bullying tactics changed due to COVID remote working, four respondents replied in the affirmative as per the below comments.

  • “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 & expand further.

Some respondents did feel safer at home. Though it was acknowledged that this may be perceived safety only, with the possibility that the behaviour was still occurring behind their back; a context of out of sight out of mind. However, it did bring with it a sense of relief as one respondent stated:

“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 location post COVID-19 was generally seen as something most respondents wished to avoid. When asked as to where they would choose to work post-COVID and return to work permitted, 5 of the respondents advised they would continue to work from home full time, while 2 indicated they would split their work between an office location and their home. When asked to rate their stress level due to the bullying when thinking about returning to the office location, respondents average rating was at 9.57 of 10. This compares to working from home and the stress level due to the bullying at 7 (total average) out of 10. This reinforces the reduction in stress of working from home when it comes to workplace bullying.

Smarter systems and processes are required to detect bullying for employees working from home

Without a doubt, this is an area that requires more research given the small numbers involved in our investigation, especially as it is likely more workplaces will operate working from home or hybrid models. However, it is likely, as indicated from responses, that bullying hasn’t ceased, just morphed into different behaviours and tactics. Ensuring our employees are mentally safe and well, regardless of work location, is a legal requirement for all employers.

Therefore, our workplaces need to become smarter in developing systems and processes that also tackle bullying in remote working environments. This not only relates to systems of detection and reporting, but those that help prevent bullying (eg. creating positive cultures where people are able to learn and raise concerns, effective and regular team communication).

However, a challenge that faces us is protecting employees at risk, where exceptional events like COVID present a convenient excuse for redundancy, rather than a legitimate business reason.

I’d like to thank those individuals who completed the survey to provide the above insights, gave their consent to use the above quotes and those in my network who helped distribute the survey.

Learn more about our Workplace Bullying Prevention Workshops

Contact us today for a confidential discussion on how we can help you through our preventative bullying workshops.