How to deal with workplace bullying when you're working from home

Workplace bullying has been brought into the spotlight by a report that declared Home Secretary Priti Patel ‘broke ministerial code’ following allegations of bullying.

While this issue has raised larger questions about bullying within central government, it’s also made us face up to a reality that many workers will experience in all sorts of fields.

When Covid-19 pushed most of us to work from home, we might have expected that workplace bullying would disappear along with the traditional working space – but that’s not the case.

Workplace bullying can continue even over remote communication, and with the huge blurring of work and home life boundaries, it can feel like there is no escape from what can be a hugely distressing situation.

Bullying in the workplace can take many forms, from verbal abuse, offensive behaviours, and unjustified criticism to singling someone out for the wrong reasons. It can be more subtle and include micro-management, excluding employees and making them feel embarrassed or humiliated.

Experiencing bullying as an adult can be isolating and lead to anxiety and depression.

Earlier this year a report by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) which represents HR professionals, found that a quarter of employees think their company turns a blind eye to workplace bullying and harassment. 

The result, based on surveys carried out by YouGov, found the most common form of bullying or harassment was ‘being undermined or humiliated in my job’, reported by 55% of women affected and 50% of men. This was followed by ‘persistent unwarranted criticism’ and ‘unwanted personal remarks’.

Even though you may not physically be coming face to face with your bully while working from home, this new style of remote working means that their bullying tactics can seep into your personal space.

According to the Law firm Farore, cases of bullying and discrimination of remote workers may well increase in line with the number of people now working from home because of COVID-19. 

Contributing factors include reduced access to HR functions and assistance that would be more readily available in the office environment.

Plus, widespread redundancies and decreased job security, people may fear speaking out for fear of losing work, meaning inappropriate behaviour could be going unreported and unchecked. 

Rachel Suff, CIPD’s senior policy adviser for employment relations, tells us: ‘Employers should have a robust and well-communicated workplace policy that sets out the organisation’s commitment to zero tolerance for unfair treatment like bullying. It should explain how bullying will be dealt with and the points of contact for someone to approach confidentially if they think they are being bullied.

‘Bullying or harassment in the workplace does not only take place in person and it’s important for employers to remember that this can also be an issue when someone is working remotely. Employers should make sure that their employees are aware of their policies and anyone experiencing an issue of bullying should feel able to speak to their manager or HR.’

Working from home can also be isolating and lonely. The lack of real-life interactions that take place during the working day can add to heightened tension and miscommunication.

Issues can also be harder to diffuse in the virtual spaces factors, which can all take a toll on our mental health and increase anxiety and stress.

While we’re still understanding the impact of the pandemic on our personal and professional lives it’s important that employees understand and refamiliarise themselves with rights while working remotely.

The mental health charity Mind has the following advice if you’re experiencing bullying at work:

  • Find out if your employer has a policy on bullying and what their grievance procedure is. The policy should outline whether a behaviour is acceptable and how to address the problem.
  • Discuss the problem with someone you feel comfortable with such as your manager, human resources department, your welfare officer or union representative (if you have one).
  • Resolve the issue informally where possible. With the support of a manager or colleague, if you feel able to, arrange to speak with the person who is bullying you.
  • If you’re not ready to talk to someone at work about it, the Acas website and helpline provide independent and confidential advice on what to do if you’re being bullied at work. Your local Citizen’s Advice may also be able to help.
  • Raise a formal complaint if you still do not feel the situation is improving. You may be able to do this through formal procedures in your workplace, or you can contact Acas to discuss your options and your rights, including what you can do if you’re not happy with the outcome of your complaint.

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