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Addressing the rise in toxic workplace behaviours and decline in trust since COVID-19
October 6, 2020

Prior to COVID-19 Australian workplaces were besieged by bullying and toxic behaviours that put workers at significant risk. No industry or sector had been excluded from the devastating fiscal, emotional, psychological and physical impacts. The noxious discrimination and power fired behaviours which underpin and embolden bullying is tacit.

Estimates published from The Productivity Commission indicate workplace bullying costs the Australian economy up to $36 billion per annum. The cost of suicides, disability, mental health issues, family and social breakdowns is however incalculable.

In the report Psychosocial Safety Climate and Better Productivity in Australian Workplaces (PSC) commissioned by Work Safe Australia it was found that:

1. Low PSC is related to higher sickness absence and presenteeism

2. Depression is related to higher sickness absence and presenteeism and

3. Psychological distress is related to higher sickness absence and presenteeism

Clearly workplace toxic behaviours from the PSC findings further impact productivity and wellness.


Overview of bullying behaviours

There are many misconceptions of what constitutes bullying, but suffice for this article, it is worth noting some of the examples outlined in the Safe Work Australia website:

a) Abusive or offensive language or comments

b) Aggressive and intimidating behaviour

c) Belittling or humiliating comments

d) Practical jokes or initiation

e) Unjustified criticism or complaints


Escalation since COVID-19

Since COVID-19 there has been a marked escalation of bullying and harassment, both overt and covert. And in direct correlation has been a decline in trust driven performance workplaces.

Trust is the outcome of healthy workplace behaviours in and within teams and the custodians of corporations and enterprise leadership.

We are regularly observing COVID-19 being a shrouded ‘excuse’ to ratify bullying. Intensified with passive-aggressive behaviours going unchecked and sanctioned by separation.

Neuroscience of human nature shows that in crises, existing harmful behaviours are magnified and rarely decreased Whilst there can be an enforced moratorium of face to face bullying, many have pivoted unacceptable behaviours or become temporarily dormant. This will be evident when work from home restrictions are rolled back and, in some instances, already being exhibited.


Recent examples

For tens of thousands, working from home has held numerous challenges and mental health and stress has been an issue, irrelevant of pre COVID-19 toxic or healthy workplaces. There are indicators for many that workloads have also increased by 50% in this crisis as people fear losing their jobs.

But for many, there has been a new and insidious pivot of unacceptable behaviours and bullying.

Micro-management

Many complaints of management calling and requesting Zoom hook ups within 10 minutes. Incessant text messaging and excessive logging to check into the work remotely.

For office-based staff this wasn’t a bullying behaviour manifest pre COVID-19, but there would have been other types of behaviour indicative of leaders without trust or concern for wellbeing.

Sexual Harassment – Voyeurism

A new level of sexual voyeurism has been unearthed during the ZOOM explosion. It was reported in Human Resource Director where “leaders have been abusing their authority by requesting female employees dress in a more provocative way, claiming that it would ‘help to win business’

This is a breach of sexual harassment laws alone. The risk to staff off business Zoom are immeasurable including stalking. Mental health impact aside it will result in commercial reputation damage.

Employers can though ask for relevant staff to dress in an appropriate professional manner including supplied uniforms if they have a documented dress policy in place.

KPI & Sales Pressures

Many reporting in line with an extra 50% workload that extra sales requests and pressure are being applied to KPI’s. Survival of the fittest in uncertain times are clearly driving unrealistic expectations and endurance tests. With millions now under-employed and unemployed, many workplaces are using that as a subliminal security tactic to push unfairly. Employee’s mental and physical health suffers and productivity declines to the point that exhaustion will result in workplace mistreatment and psychological injury claims.

The shining star bully staff member

With staff working from home often the perpetrator is a staff member whom ingratiates themselves to management and hence their behaviour goes unchecked.

Such toxic employees in fear that their job maybe in jeopardy due to the ongoing and unknown impact of COVID-19 purposefully decide to play nicer for the moment. Once workplaces start to return to some form of normal the lid will be exploded and behaviours predicted to be even more dangerous.

Protection Requests

Many workplaces, retail, health and manufacturing where work from home is not viable are not supporting staff with PPE requests. Staff are in fear of their health and wellbeing and feel undervalued and trust in leadership is further declined. This is starting to play out in many environments where client care is impacted negatively through absenteeism and presenteeism.

Safety obligations being ignored

There are workplaces where there are employees who have a complete disregard to wear PPE and follow hygiene practices and instructions that put the whole of the workplace at risk. Management are taking a laissez faire approach which is downright dangerous.


The need for urgent intervention NOW

Most workplaces have and will continue to be impacted for some time due to COVID-19. Even for workplaces that have had low or nil bullying complaints the challenges of this time can create the perfect firestorm for future conflict. For those workplaces, prevention and intervention strategies would be recommended.

For organisations that have perpetrators, identified or under the radar but damage is clear, it is urgent to address now.


Eleven (11) critical aspects to review & implement:

1. Not all working from home environments are the same. Know the limitations that each employee has and redefine their tasks and workload to suit, setting clear boundaries and expectations.

2. Communicate openly with your employees about the psychological risks and what systems are available or may need to be implemented to support these risks.

3. Revisit policies and communicate that you have an open-door policy.

4. Implement Flexible Work Arrangements where practical and appropriate.

5. If working from home is going to be continued, then consider how this office space is to be fitted out. Complete a working from home checklist for each individual employee to ascertain potential OHS/WHS risks.

6. Investigate issues as they arise and go deep to understand the root cause factor that had escalated this situation at hand. Take heed of small incidents immediately and make sure that you listen to what is being said.

7. Create collective goals for accountability for both parties.

8. Review how all remote work is monitored. Google drive and Dropbox are favourites. Schedule planned interactions with remote workers and don’t forget to set up a social interaction with all staff once a week.

9. Check in with those in leadership roles to monitor and support them manage teams remotely.

10. Workers can often fall through the cracks when exclusion happens. Monitor communication plans for inclusion.

11. Monitor how your workforce are responding to daily situations and how they may differ from pre COVID.


Trust driven performance workplaces for survival

In 2020 we have been given a critical wake-up call on all levels. Eradicating bullying and the underpinning behaviours that cause it will encourage trust driven workplaces and by virtue ensure commercial and human survival.