This article is the first of two parts exploring bullying and its prevention strategies within the return to work in our current COVID-19 environment. In it, we draw on the perspectives of members from the newly formed Australian Association of Workplace Bullying Professionals.

Our workplaces have experienced their biggest shake up this century with the COVID-19 pandemic. With little time to prepare or process the change, employees have been transitioned to isolation and remote work environments. Employers have been forced to creatively think to achieve this or find ways to survive, many reliant on government support.

Now there is a slow turn around and we are preparing to open our office doors again. We are about to venture out into the sunlight and return to work.

One question we might ask is what does this mean for us as employers or employees when it comes to workplace bullying in the COVID-19 return to work context?

Has bullying stopped during the pandemic?

Some employers might be forgiven for thinking that bullying has stopped during the pandemic. Afterall, employees who might have been subject to bullying behaviours of a colleague have not had to face that person in a face to face office based scenario.

However, workplace bullying psychologist and author, Evelyn Field, cautions against this belief. While some bullies may have eased off as their face to face alliances have evaporated, others have just changed their emphases through the use of electronic means and cyberbullying.

She adds that there were many “people being very unsure at the moment. What’s going to happen to the future, their jobs, their health, so there will be gratefulness to say we’ve come out alive so far, and yes I have a job and that’s good.” For some, there is a positive.

As Evelyn states, there is a large degree of uncertainty and this also should breed caution. Employees in this environment may not raise concerns if they are currently being subjected to bullying behaviours. In their minds, raising issues could be seen to be rocking the boat, and lead to their own loss of employment. So they will stay silent.

With increased positivity, will we see less bullying in the future?

Uncertainty is a key driver of workplace bullying, so we need to be proactively looking for bullying behaviours in our employees. We need to ask the question and encourage employees to raise it. Evelyn goes on to say that “there will be gratefulness, but there’s going to be less jobs. You’ll find a lot of competition. I think you will find a lot of people saying ‘I want this job more than somebody else, so I will try and get rid of them’ by bullying.” As a result of fewer jobs, she believes the bullying will be worse.

It’s this uncertainty that leads to an increase in anxiety, and this, suggests Alexina and Nerio Baldini is what workplaces also need to monitor. “Bullies are very good at sniffing out anxiety”, workplace bullying consultant Nerio stated. As we return to work, “bullies will seek to reassert their dominance over people around them as they try and re-establish the pecking order. It’s entirely in their mind, but from their point of view if they feel they need to be on top of the pecking order, they may escalate their behaviours initially to make sure everybody remembers that they are the ones on top.” He reminds us that we shouldn’t expect this just to be managers bullying subordinates, but peers bullying colleagues or subordinates bullying their managers.

Workplace psychologist, Alex adds that her recent experience of employees has included “people playing on other people’s anxiety. That’s what I’m hearing a lot of. Not so much ‘I’m really anxious about returning to work, but I’m really anxious about everything at the moment.’” She raises her concern that this will lead to employees with heightened anxiety being more vulnerable to bullying, leading to its potential increase.

Where are management in this picture?

Evelyn’s concern is that effective management skills will have evaporated during COVID-19. Unless a manager has been effectively trained, it is likely that adversarial approaches rather than collaborative culture will rise to the forefront.

Evelyn states “Bullying is created or enabled by poor management. So you have your poor management, your toxic culture, you have more bullying.” If you have a collaborative workplace where people respect one another, listen to one another, then there’s going to be less bullying. The average bully has to be fostered by their environment”.

With employers focus on survival and crisis responses, she raises concerns that employees may be subject to “if you don’t like it, get out” or “suck it up” responses from employers with the reduced availability of jobs.

However, there are solutions and opportunities that exist in the return to work to build a safe, bullying free environment.

Our experts from the Australian Association of Workplace Bullying Professionals will provide their thoughts on this in part two of En Garde.

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