Impacts of COVID-19 on Workplace Bullying and Harassment

Workplace bullying and harassment are pervasive issues in Canadian workplaces. A recent national study by Western University, the University of Toronto, and the Canadian Labour Congress indicates that over seventy percent of their nearly 5000 survey respondents have experienced some form of harassment or violence in the past two years. Through the pandemic, workers have moved in unprecedented numbers to remote and hybrid work. For many of us, our initial assumption may be that folks who are moving to this model would experience a reprieve from toxic environments, harmful cultures, and would particularly benefit from simply not being in the same physical space as their harassers. This may indeed be true for some but there are also myriad other factors contributing to a complex landscape where workers have less stability and support as well as increased isolation, personal demands, and overall risk. Through this study, interviewees reported “across the board” that they’d seen increases in severity, frequency, and duration of harassment as well as increased fear to report, new harasser tactics, and retaliation.

Studies have shown that employees with more demanding work and less social support, or where peers were being dismissed in the wake of a crisis were more likely to be bullied and harassed in the workplace. This was evident in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crash where we also saw an increase in not only the frequency of harassment and bullying but also in the severity.

We know that the risk and incidence of workplace harassment, violence, and sexual violence was already much higher for women, newcomers, Indigenous workers, workers with disabilities and other groups who face intentional and systemic oppression. As the pandemic has disrupted and complicated every aspect of our collective work life, it has disproportionately impacted these groups as well. Interviewees from these groups noted that lateral and vertical violence in particular, had moved online.

The pandemic has created a situation where work is not only more intense but also far more precarious. Folks who have a higher risk of losing employment are more likely to be on the wrong end of problematic power dynamics and less likely to be able to come forward if (or when) things become unsafe. Power disparity and imbalance may also be impacted by the need for accommodation, appropriate technology, or expansion/alteration of existing supports. We know that women were generally affected in far greater numbers in terms of taking on the stress and additional labour that came from school and day care closures. We also know that folks with disabilities generally have a greater need for accommodation in the first place. The pandemic has increased the need for accommodations for those of us with existing disabilities, has exacerbated already difficult circumstances for these workers and created a multitude of new short-term and long-term health impacts, particularly in the form of ‘long COVID’.

Through the pandemic, workers who need additional considerations for their families, health, or simply to participate in the workforce are often put in a situation where they are more reliant on their co-workers and management to be consistent and proactive in providing that for them. Workers, especially those who are immunocompromised may be pressured to return to work despite safety and health concerns related to the pandemic. People may be forced to stay in an otherwise unsafe or toxic workplace because they fear not being accommodated elsewhere and may tolerate unacceptable behaviour because they fear repercussions in the form of accommodations being changed or taken away.

The pandemic and the shift to remote work has been isolating for many people. While the adjustment to working at home may be welcome for some, many have also found that the lack of in-person connection has been damaging to their mental health and has increased the risk and impact of harassment and bullying. Yes, folks may no longer be in the same space with their harassers or abusers, but three main factors have come together to largely negate this benefit.

First, we have seen a major increase in incidents of online or “cyber harassment” through the pandemic. Second, workers have lost the connection and social support that reduces not only the likelihood of harassment and violence at work but also the severity of its impact. Finally, all of this is exacerbated by the increased blurring of our personal and professional lives. Workers may be in situations where they are obligated for the first time to share their personal phone numbers or emails with co-workers, managers, or clients. People are routinely having to allow strangers into their homes through virtual meetings. Paradoxically, we’ve become far more accessible as a result of our isolation and our homes may not feel like the sanctuaries they once were.

Workers are reporting a sharp increase in surveillance harassment by their organization or management and digital stalking by peers and clients. The former typically being the abuse or misuse of technology or software to consistently or egregiously breach the expected level of privacy between a worker and their workplace. Cyberstalking refers to the use of the internet, e-mail, other telecommunication technologies, and increasingly social media, to harass or stalk another person. Workers have also reported an increase in sexually suggestive remarks or overtones during work calls or chats, serious repeated offensive remarks related to a person’s body or appearance, indecent behaviour during video calls, lewd calls, messages or emails, offensive comments or jokes, displaying offensive pictures, unwelcome online invitations, flirting, online stalking. All types of harassment are harmful and problematic, regardless of the environment and workers are entitled to do their jobs without having to tolerate any of these toxic behaviours.

We have seen a major reduction in workplace trainings and supports – particularly in person. In many cases, in-person trainings were stopped altogether. These courses may have directly, positively, impacted workplace culture or safety – in examples like gender-based violence prevention, sexual harassment prevention or de-escalating violent situations. Other workplace supports have seen major backlogs or have been cancelled or deprioritized as workers are redeployed or funding has been reallocated to other areas. When people don’t have access to supports, peers, or resources, problematic behaviour is likely to escalate and those impacted are even less likely to come forward or stand up against unsafe situations or harassment.

On the positive side, the pandemic has opened the door for workers to talk to one another more openly about their mental health. While the pandemic may have been the catalyst for initial conversations about isolation and shared struggles, the door remains open with many organizations implementing new strategies to foster further conversations and maintain space for peer support.

These issues are not going to remedy themselves. It’s clear that our policy and approaches need to catch up to a landscape that has shifted dramatically and advanced in profound ways in a few short years since the onset of the pandemic. We must continue to invest in our psychological health through progressive policies, frequent and meaningful trainings, comprehensive and sufficient accommodations, and an intentional prioritization of healthy social supports and healthy workplace culture. If we continue to consider the workplace in a narrow, traditional way we will continue to fall short.