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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Maureen is a Workplace Crisis Strategist and skilled investigator of bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment claims; real world experience which underpins the highly effective bullying prevention programs she delivers across multiple sectors in metropolitan and regional Australia. She drives behavioural and cultural change within organisations to ensure people don’t end up at the wrong place at the wrong time, including jail.
I write this article after reflecting on a workplace investigation I undertook last month and the connection it has to some of the workshops I have conducted in relation to workplace behaviour.
The investigation started with one complaint that involved 6 employees and rapidly became 14. The disturbing factor throughout the investigation was the acceptance for behaviour that had crossed the line, otherwise illegal. The issue I struggle with was that a couple of employees in leadership roles thought the behaviour was not serious enough to act on.
To add to the complexity was how the unlawful behaviour was impacting the employees outside of work.
Figures from The Victorian WorkCover Authority estimates that workplace violence costs $57 million per annum. Compared with international studies it could be much higher.
What is Workplace Violence?
“It is - Incidents where employees are abused, threatened, assaulted or subjected to other offensive behaviour in circumstances related to their work.”
It can be Physical and/or Psychological
Whilst Physical Violence is easy to identify, it is the existence of Psychological Violence that has been long underestimated. Psychological Violence is often perpetrated through repeated behaviour of a type which may seem minor but which cumulatively escalates to a serious form of violence. It often consists of repeated, unwelcome, unreciprocated and intended action which may have a devastating effect on the target, not to say a single event would constitute an act of violence.
Often Physical and Psychological Violence overlap one another, making it difficult to categorise different forms of violence. Some of the most frequently used terms are:
It involves the misuse of physical and psychological strength, it is behaviour that is uncivil. It includes harassment, bullying and mobbing.
To menace hurt or injure resulting in fear of physical, sexual, psychological harm or other negative consequences to the target(s).
To physically injure or attack a person(s) leading to physical harm.
It can be unwelcome conduct - physical or psychological, verbal, non-verbal, visual – based on the protected attributes under EEO legislation such as age, disability, domestic circumstances, sex, sexual orientation, race, colour etc, including sexual harassment.
Sexual Harassment is unwelcome sexual behaviour, which could be expected to make a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated. It can be physical, verbal or written.
With violence comes stress for the targets, other employees, the employer and those outside of the workplace.
What is Stress?
“It is the state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances”
Both positive and negative stresses can be present at any given time. Employees build up their own resilience and skills to deal with stresses as they arise in normal circumstances, which is a positive phenomenon. Stress one would say is normal and necessary. It’s when this stress changes and builds in intensity, is continuous and repeated leaving a person being unable to cope, lack of support being shown where stress then becomes negative, leading to physical illness and psychological disorders.
In a report written by (Hurrell et al., 1997, pp. 163-170), it was concluded that assaults may occur more frequently among highly stressed workers than those experiencing less stress.
Knowing what Physical and Psychological Violence is, is the first step in establishing a framework to manage both Physical and Psychological Violence in the workplace.
This brings me back to the beginning of the article, so what went so incredibly wrong last month and in other workplaces I have worked in.
Stress was a common denominator in many of the discussions both in the workplace and in some cases the domestic situation. So why did it get to this level?
One needs to consider the correlation between Psychological Violence the employee was going through in the workplace and the impact this may have on their personal life. There have been relationship breakups, physical violence against women, strained relationships and suicidal tendencies.
It is the responsibility of all workplaces to work towards creating a workplace that is built on mutual respect.
At Maureen Kyne & Associates we deliver the Civil Treatment® Series that is designed to help organisations prevent, detect, and correct inappropriate behaviours and build productive, inclusive cultures. We use engaging, interactive learning to put participants in real life scenarios.
Here's a famous optical illusion. When you look at it, you’ll see either a young woman or an older woman.
Your friend who’s sitting right next to you may see a young woman gazing off to the side, while you see an elderly woman with her eyes cast downward.
Both of you -- the drawing contains both images. Even though this blog is written in relation to US conditions, the situation and issues are not dissimilar to Australian conditions and laws that govern our workplace.
Below is the full article from ELI®. Would love to get some feedback on your thoughts abotu this.
Here’s a famous optical illusion. When you look at it, you’ll see either a young woman or an older woman. Your friend who’s sitting right next to you may see a young woman gazing off to the side, while you see an elderly woman with her eyes cast downward. Who’s right? Both of you — the drawing contains both images.
This difference of perception is an analogy for what’s happening in our workplaces. The EEOC’s statistics show that charges of job discrimination and Commission lawsuits are on the decline. To many lawyers and others, this represents a welcome reduction in risk and a sign of progress. Compared to practices and conduct of past decades, it is.
Yet, I’m betting if you were to walk into many organizations that had only a minimal number of claims and lawsuits, employees would tell you there’s a serious issue lurking just under the surface. It’s a source of internal charges, complaints, negative engagement survey feedback, and daily frustration. But, the behaviors involved do not hit the compliance radar. For that reason, they are not taken seriously by many.
Essentially, individuals from different groups are raising issues of exclusion, e.g., being ignored in daily conversations, being spoken to dismissively, not getting the same social and professional welcome as their colleagues, and being limited to formal, if not wooden, levels of communication and interaction. To them, unfairness and isolation are obvious and painful, restricting their opportunities for mentoring and advancement.
Whose view of the workplace landscape is right? Both are. Legal risk over “traditional” EEOC claims is clearly declining, in large part, due to improved employment practices. These have been built on years of experience and a commitment to fairness and compliance following a 50-year history of statutory civil rights enforcement and awareness. In fact, many of the worst slurs, behaviors, and actions are relatively rare as more employers have enacted strict policies, implemented workplace training and reporting mechanisms, and continue to scrutinize individual actions for evidence of disparate treatment and statistical impact.
Yet, there’s a big gap between illegal and exclusionary conduct. Here’s the reason why: in most parts of the U.S., if you remove tangible actions and overt forms of mistreatment, such as blatant disparate treatment or outrageous verbal or written actions, it’s nearly impossible to raise viable claims of discrimination.
However, the impact of what’s being termed “subtle behaviors” is real. Surely we can all remember instances when we were excluded based on such interactions. And, in our workplaces today, at least from what many surveys and opinion polls indicate, perceptions of racial gender, sexual orientation, and ethnic and age alienation still remain based on such conduct. As Hamlet said, “…there’s the rub.”
The way we communicate and how we interpret our interactions is largely based on tone of voice, body language, eye contact, and casual social interactions – all of these give us the perception we’re either part of- or excluded from- groups. And, these groups include our workplace assignments. Though negative interactions don’t lend themselves very well to “legal” proof, they still have the power to demotivate and demoralize and definitely affect performance, quality, retention, and other important business metrics.
Think about your co-workers. Even though you share the same organization, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll share the same perceptions of certain workplace comments and behaviors. Think about your friend who saw a young woman in the illustration, whereas you saw an elderly one. The different views that individuals have of their workplace are that real.
Unless employers mean that inclusion is limited just to behaviors that can spark compliance liability, it’s vital to see both sides of the picture in our workplaces. This is the only way to fully address our organizations’ commitments to fairness, civility, inclusion — in essence, the intended purpose of laws dealing with fair treatment at work.