Workplace Bullying and Dealing with the Stress of Working from Home.
Angela Mazzone, Dr. Angela Mazzone is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the National Anti-Bullying Research and Resource Centre (ABC), Dublin City University. She is involved in a large-scale national study on workplace bullying, which is funded by the Health Service Executive (HSE).
After completing her PhD in Psychology, Angela was a visiting researcher at several European Universities, where she was involved in international research projects focused on bullying in various contexts. Her main research interests are workplace-bullying, school bullying, bullying towards immigrant youth, peer relations and socio-moral development.
Pauline Cooley, Pauline is a Life and Professional Coach with a keen interest in change through empowerment. She has a strong belief that, in highly successful change efforts, the objective should not focus exclusively on strategy or systems but also include a focus on helping individuals achieve their personal aspirations and goals. Pauline is passionate about empowering individuals to achieve outcomes important to them in their personal and professional lives and is looking for opportunities to bring this program into business & education.
Extra research notes for reading.
Bullying in the Workplace
In 2014, Ireland was named the 7th worst country in Europe for workplace bullying, while in 2018, a study found that two in five people experienced bullying in their work environment.
In Ireland, all employers are legally obliged to prevent harassment or bullying at work under the Employment Equality Act 1998, and, as a result, many workplaces have strict policies in place to combat the issue.
But even so, many companies aren’t sufficiently equipped with the skills needed to deal with this prevalent problem. As the stats show, policies aren’t enough to stamp out workplace bullying, especially when competitive culture is rife in the Irish workforce.
Research shows that bullying is not confined to particular sectors or demographics. It is often seen in work environments where an organisation allows or encourages positional game playing and where employees are pitted against each other.
Companies with reward strategies can also, sometimes inadvertently, promote inappropriate workplace behavior including bullying – for example, if employees are evaluated based on group performance, low performing team members may become the target of criticism and frustration, meanwhile supervisors with high performing subordinates may become bullies to those they perceived as a threat.
This kind of work culture can not only breed hostility between co-workers, but it can also intensify stress and anxiety among staff and create an environment in which inappropriate workplace behaviour including bullying can thrive.
Bullying is bad for business. It causes high levels of absenteeism and employee turnover, which in turn leads to increased recruitment and retraining costs.
It decreases engagement, damages the company’s image and can end up in lawsuits and legal costs.
Workplace bullying often manifests itself in two ways, directly or indirectly.
Direct bullying can be anything from verbal threats to acts of violence or public humiliation and while awful to endure, it is easily identified and, in theory, easier for HR managers or company owners to address.
Indirect bullying is a lot more common in the Irish workforce and is harder not only to identify, but to prove and therefore eradicate.
Typically, this type of bullying sees the target deliberately excluded from work meetings, projects and work-based social occasions. It is often subtle and can easily go unnoticed by the employer, or indeed other employees.
If the bullying is done by a superior, the target may see their workloads increase significantly or they may be forced to perform tasks that are below their station in a bid to humiliate and shake their confidence.
Both types of bullying can have a detrimental effect on the mental health of the target, leading to increased levels of stress and mental health distress which can manifest as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress and even substance abuse.
It can create a toxic work environment in which bystanders may feel insecure, threatened or unable to speak out. Past research has proven that most people who feel they are in an unhelpful or hostile work environment prefer to work alone rather than in teams, which hampers productivity.
Research has also found that those who are bullied at work may also act badly as a result, causing a ripple effect through the workforce. It is important, therefore, that employers provide safe and effective mechanisms for employees to report misbehaviour in the workplace.
It is not enough to have HR policies and strategies in place, you must also look at how these policies are applied and how employees engage around these issues.
Do they seek counsel from HR or a line manager, and how consistent is the application across the company?
Wellness programmes, when incorporated alongside appropriate HR policies and processes, can help significantly decrease the risk of bullying at work.
By engaging in a multifaceted approach, an employer can combat the factors that give rise to bullying and essentially address the root of the issue.
Bullying in the workplace has been described in various ways. The Health and Safety Authority’s definition is that it is:
– repeated inappropriate behaviour, direct or indirect, whether verbal, physical or otherwise, conducted by one or more persons against another or others, at the place of work and/or in the course of employment, which could reasonably be regarded as undermining the individual‘s right to dignity at work.
– an isolated incident of the behaviour described in this definition may be an affront to dignity at work but as a once off incident is not considered to be bullying.
Workplace bullying is both widespread and damaging. It occurs when there is repeated and systematic aggressive behaviour by one or more persons towards another, and takes place in all types of work environments, from offices to shops to building sites.
Research shows that almost one-in-ten employees in Ireland have recent experience of being bullied.
At a macro level, there are significant costs to the economy from bullying in the form of lost productivity, which can occur when those who experience bullying end up taking extra time off work as a result.
In a recent study it was found that a total of 1.7 million work days are lost in Ireland each year because of bullying, at a cost to the economy of almost a quarter of a billion euros per annum.
While these numbers clearly highlight the enormity of the problem in Ireland, the most important and serious consequences of bullying are always for the victims. For them, it is an insidious problem with a wide range of negative personal effects.
For example, in another study, it showed that employees who reported being bullied were considerably more likely to be often or always stressed, while other research has found links with post-traumatic stress disorder.
There is also evidence that workplace bullying can lead to poor concentration, increased propensity to accidents, lowered commitment and performance, as well as increased alcohol consumption and strain on personal relationships. In fact, bullying at work has been described as a more crippling problem for employees than all other kinds of work-related stress put together.
In addition to these personal impacts, there are also numerous financial and other costs, both to individuals and organisations.
For example, there can be direct costs to the victim, such as loss of income, medical costs, legal costs, and early retirement. Indirect costs may include reduced well-being and quality of life, poorer job satisfaction, as well as lost opportunities.
For the employer or organisation, direct bullying-related costs arise from sickness absences, replacement costs, legal costs, and HR-related costs. There can also be indirect costs to the business such as effects on bystanders or witnesses, reputational damage and lower morale.
Bullying in Lockdown
Given all of this, as well as the context of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, an important issue to consider is how changes in work practices, including increased demands and remote working, might impact workplace bullying.
Will the fact that many of us are now working from home mean that prevalence rates of bullying will fall. Or will new working arrangements exacerbate situations where bullying is more likely to occur?
While it is difficult to know for sure, especially given the lack of up-to-date data on the issue, previous research examining the facilitators of workplace bullying, as well as evidence on prevalence rates across sectors and contexts, provide some indications.
We know that bullying thrives in stressful work environments and is associated with organisational change, meaning pandemic-related changes to work practices could prove a fertile ground for bullying in some sectors.
For example, the prevalence of bullying is generally higher in the health sector. While working from home has been lower here than in other sectors during the pandemic, it has experienced significant changes in other working conditions and practices in very demanding circumstances. As a result, it is likely that bullying would have remained a serious concern in the health sector during the pandemic.
For other sectors where remote working has been much more common, it is less clear what the implications are. For example, it could mean that there are fewer opportunities for bullying as a result of reduced contact with colleagues. However, survey data examined from before the pandemic shows similar bullying prevalence rates amongst those working and not working from home.
But it is important to note that this was when remote working was a choice rather than enforced so we need to be careful not to over-interpret this finding. It is possible that some respondents may have been working at home because of workplace bullying.
Nonetheless, aspects of work that increase stress, such as excessive workload, limited control over work and conflicting demands, are all likely to have increased with remote working and this could enable bullying.
A further consideration arises in relation to how we communicate with our colleagues and managers.
Enforced home working inevitably entails much higher levels of electronic communication, whether by email or Zoom. While this is not a risk in itself for bullying, if a relationship between two or more workers is already fraught, the victim may suffer insofar as they cannot “escape” psychologically to home.
Home space has now become work space for many and the boundaries previously afforded, which may have provided some protection as a coping response, are erased by home working.
Overall, the evidence suggests that workplace bullying in Ireland is widespread, costly and unlikely to disappear with remote working. The question then is what to do about it. Workplace bullying is notoriously difficult to deal with in organisations and the evidence base for effective interventions is thin.
While anti-bullying policies are important to signal to staff that bullying is unacceptable, they need to be implemented fairly and in a timely fashion.
Ideally, organisations should be proactive, identifying how and when bullying occurs, and be prepared to develop specific interventions that are appropriate to context.
That context may now be very different as a result of Covid-19, and employers should look carefully at how new work practices may be acting as facilitators to workplace bullying.
A new code of practice setting out how employers, employees and their representatives should address and resolve bullying in the workplace has come into force in Ireland.
The new ‘Code of Practice for Employers and Employees on the Prevention and Resolution of Bullying at Work’ (2020 Code) came into force on 23 December 2020. It was developed by the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) and the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC), and replaces and updates the separate codes of practice previously published by each organisation.
The 2020 Code is designed to provide guidance for employers, and for employees and their representatives, on good practice and procedures for addressing and resolving issues around workplace bullying.
It also provides practical guidance to employers on identifying, managing and preventing bullying at work arising from their duties under the 2005 Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act (2005 Act).
Under the Code, employers must clearly state that bullying in the workplace is not acceptable, and that complaints of bullying will be dealt with sensitively. The Code highlights the procedures that must be put in place with employers; and reinforces obligations for employers to progress complaints informally where possible and, otherwise, formally as appropriate.
The Code also recognises that bullying can be conducted by non-employees such as customers, clients and business contacts. The Code recommends that a summary of the employer’s anti-bullying policy be displayed at a place where such persons might attend.
Failure to follow the 2020 Code is not in itself an offence. However, Irish employment legislation provides that in any proceedings before a court, the Labour Court or the WRC, a code of practice will be admissible in evidence. Any provision of the 2020 Code which appears to be relevant to any question arising in the proceedings will be taken into account in determining that question.
Dealing with the Stress of Working from Home
Research commissioned by LinkedIn has given insight into the current working conditions of employees working remotely in Ireland due to Covid-19. The research found that 56% of respondents reported feeling more anxious or stressed than they did before the lockdown was introduced while respondents also reported working an extra 38 hours per month on average – essentially an additional working week.
The current situation is particularly affecting younger workers with 70% of respondents under 24 and 63% of respondents between 24 and 34 saying they fell anxious or stressed as a result of working from home. Some of the factors being reported as causing this stress include:
– Feeling under pressure to answer emails and calls quicker than usual or be visible online while they are remote working as they are concerned about losing their jobs
– The affect the lockdown is having on their ability to focus
– Getting easily distracted by their home environment
– The merger of their home and work environments resulting in an inability to switch off
The current situation of remote working will be ongoing for the foreseeable future and is possibly the beginning of a sea change to a remote working model of employment. Research is indicating that employees are beginning to feel stressed due to their current working conditions so it is important for employers to conduct a risk assessment in line with their duties under the Health and Safety Acts.
We have learned a lot about working from home during an emergency and what practices can help us, but we have also learned about its drawbacks. We need to keep productive, but we also need to keep safe. Now that a variety of innovative models have emerged, will we ever go back to the way things were`?
One key lesson relates to balance, specifically that between individual wellbeing and organisational productivity. It’s no longer the pre-Covid binary of a work/life balance choice. After all, the phrase ‘living at work’ rather than ‘working from home’ became common during 2020. Employers have invested heavily in wellbeing programmes and supports to this effect much more than ever before.
By mid 2020, Ireland had one of the highest rates of WFH in Europe, with over 40% by comparison with an EU average of 33.7%. The National Remote Working Survey confirmed that workplace productivity can be maintained in home working.
Over 5,600 workers were surveyed and 62% of respondents agreed that working remotely increases their productivity. In a similar survey undertaken by Ámarach for the Fórsa trade union, the figure for increased productivity was slightly lower at 50%.
Workers now want more flexibility in choosing where they work. 94% of respondents to the National Remote Working Survey were in favour of working remotely on an on-going basis, for some or all of the time, and over 80% in the Ámarach poll expressed a preference for a hybrid arrangement.
While benefits like lower costs, a reduction or removal of commute times and a greater choice in work-location have not gone unnoticed, a number of negatives have emerged.
Working from home has impacted women more than men in more ways than one: women are identified in research as shouldering a far greater proportion of the burden of care responsibilities, as well as housekeeping and other domestic responsibilities.
In a May 2020 CSO survey, 48.6% of females indicated their wish to return to their workplace when restrictions were lifted, as opposed to 31.7% of men.
Both men and women are impacted by other worrying trends that emerged such as the impact on future salary increases. A survey of in-house lawyers in Ireland shows that 41% of women and 33% of men believe that working from home will have a negative effect on their future salary increases..
Much of the collaboration involved in innovation has also been reduced and concerns exist over whether the lack of connection will impact this in the longer term. The dangers of sitting for too long have been highlighted in a survey commissioned by the Irish Heart Foundation, which showed that more than half of those WFH in Ireland were, on average, sitting for 2 hours and 40 minutes longer than when office based.
All of these are more reason to act strategically to move to a more sustainable, well managed and effective model in 2021. We are no longer dealing with the ’emergency measures’ we experienced in 2020. From an organisational perspective, a move to a more normalised solution is the most practical, not to mention popular, option. Workers want flexibility and organisations want productivity.
A new term has been created to deal with this. Hybrid remote working encompasses many models forged through necessity as part of the pandemic including alternating, co-located, connected remote or on-site/on-demand. Then, there’s the ‘work from anywhere’ model previously accessed only by digital nomads.
We also became more aware of the phenomenon of working from home abroad after multinational organisations began calling their employees who moved abroad to work remotely back to Ireland. Tax, legal and social protection headaches are of particular concern to these employers.
As employers juggle with the new world of work, there are a number of legal developments that they will need to take on board. The issue of ‘always on’ has already been addressed by AIB, who became the first employer in Ireland to agree a ‘right to disconnect’ policy for their workers with the Financial Services Union.
It is anticipated that a Code of Practice on the ‘Right to Disconnect’ will be introduced in early 2021 following a public consultation.
The Code will provide guidance to employers and employees and will be admissible in evidence in proceedings before the Workplace Relations Commission, the Labour Court and the Courts. A right in legislation already exists in France, Spain, Canada and Portugal.
Employers will also have to prepare for the implementation of the EU Work Life Balance Directive. This will give employees with caring responsibilities a right to request flexible working. There are concerns about the potentially gendered nature of the Directive, especially as women with caring responsibilities have already been disadvantaged during the pandemic.
We also await the publication of the Government’s Remote Working Policy and the initiatives and requirements that it may contain, in particular the urgent roll out of the National Broadband Plan. A number of public bodies such as the Health and Safety Authority, the Data Protection Commission, the National Cyber Security Centre and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment have easily accessible resources to support employers on all aspects of remote working.
All organisations must also develop a crisis management strategy. Unfortunately, future crises will arise due to severe adverse weather events, local or global health emergencies, acts of terror and other environmental, social political events. The learnings from Covid-19 are now readily available and it would be a huge loss if organisations do not take the evidence and prepare properly for next time.
We can predict from previous crises that a period of innovation follows. It is unfortunate that those who do not or cannot adapt will lose out on the best talent and fall short of industry trends leaving their competitors to the spoils. Employees cannot commit in the long-term to eternal burnout. They must find the employment that best enables them to develop their own wellbeing and productivity through flexible structures that represent real life, not an idealized identity of themselves as an employee.
While workers are set-up for home working on a practical level, cracks are starting to appear on a physical, mental and emotional level. Many are working from home with high levels of anxiety, personal challenges, conflicting priorities, economic strains and various other challenges. Stress levels are high, fatigue has set-in and we are all experiencing some level or form of Covid anxiety.
Work, home and schooling responsibilities are all thrown together, often in the same small physical space, all competing for attention. It’s time to appreciate the potential negative impacts of this “working from home in a crisis”, creating the awareness needed so that individuals can ask for help and employers empowered to provide the support and wellbeing initiatives needed.
Pre-Covid, a 2017 report from the United Nations International Labour Organisation found that employees are more productive when they work outside of the conventional office, but that they’re also more vulnerable to working longer hours, a more intense work pace, work-home interference, and, in some cases, greater stress.
All of that is without the impact of local Covid restrictions, which are also limiting our movements and social interactions, and the potential personal implications related to health and bereavement.
Established, fully remote companies (many of which have existed since 2005) are aware of these potential challenges in their employees’ wellbeing. They aim to proactively counteract these through initiatives from employee onboarding and ongoing employee engagement. These supports and initiatives are specifically tailored to remote workers, including encouraging regular physical meet-ups and retreats to foster social interaction and team building in their workforces.
When work, life and other responsibilities are thrown together in the same space, where is the balance? According to a survey conducted by Mental Health First Aid Ireland, we are facing significant and varied challenges due to the mass shift to remote work. Survey respondents reported negative physical ramifications as a result of working from home, as well as issues relating to mental health and wellbeing. Over a third of respondents reported that they were not happy with their work-life balance.
As boundaries are blurred between work and life, workers have found it hard to switch off mainly due to the removal of the commute to a physical office location as the time and space to move into work mode has been removed. 42% of those surveyed agreed that they found it difficult to maintain the boundaries between home and work life and almost half of respondents (49.3%) worked over their contracted hours.
Stuck in a home-office, with little or no real life connection opportunities with colleagues can also mean individuals feel they are lonely and socially isolated. The Psychological Society of Ireland defines isolation as “the objective size of one’s social network and the frequency of contact with the same.’ Loneliness, however, ‘occurs where a gap is perceived between the social relations one has and what is desired, in relation to quantity or quality.”
In April 2020, their research indicated that the prevalence of loneliness has more than doubled since 2018 among those aged between 18 to 34 in Ireland.
In Irish law, employers have a duty of care to provide employees with a safe place of work and safe systems of work which includes psychological safety during remote working. Managers and owner-managers play a vital role in the day to day implementation of this duty. As with all aspects of health matters, prevention is key.
Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) play an important role here. If an employee develops a mental health problem, the employer is required to provide reasonable accommodation to support that employee. Research by *Laya Healthcare found a staggering 91% of Irish workers are struggling with anxiety during Covid-19, yet a mere 10% are seeking assistance from a mental health professional.
These findings should not be overlooked. In fact, these two conflicting pieces of information equate to a prominent red flag for future workforce issues such as fatigue, absenteeism, and consequently, burnout. Moreover, the overarching message is that if an individual worker is struggling they need to be able to speak up and ask for help.
Irish EAP programmes have provided a vital lifeline to employers and employees in their Covid response, to maintain health and wellbeing in home working. Many services pivoted to be offered digitally, with yoga, fitness and various health assessments being provided electronically. New offerings were also launched by providers such as **Spectrum.Life to support and aid the growing population of home-workers including ergonomics, physio, mental health, remote working skills, parenting etc.
While the ‘death of the office’ has been heralded, its demise may not be complete just yet. Although Google cancelled its plans for a 202,000 sq. ft. office space in Dublin in September, it has been reported recently that Apple and Amazon are on the lookout for large office spaces in Cork. We may be likely to see smaller, but smarter offices. Offices are expensive to acquire and run. If employers wish to save money on their office properties, fully remote, remote first or hybrid working models may be the way forward.
Most workers want a combination of hybrid working, so a greater use of ‘hot-desking’ may be seen, but workers will be adverse to space sharing until Covid-19 is significantly reduced or eliminated. Research strongly suggests that people want to avail of remote working benefits well into the future, yet the safety and productivity management tools are so different in the remote work context.
Show Hosted: Joe Dalton and Simon Haigh
Produced: Joe Dalton
Research: Patrick Keeley
Sound and engineering, Luke Delaney and Peter Rice.
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