Given that Covid-19 prevents us being in the office in close proximity with our colleagues, you’d think that, on the face of it, there’d be less opportunity for bullying. Certainly less chance of inappropriate workplace touching. A silver lining perhaps in a difficult time?

But we humans are masterful at adapting and, just as we successfully found new ways to perform our roles remotely, we need to be careful that we don’t inadvertently invent new ways of causing discomfort.  

It's not that people set out intentionally to cause problems, it’s about the impact we have on our colleagues. And as we find ourselves in lockdown again in many parts of the UK, many people are not feeling great. Some are feeling raw, some even desperate. In this more vulnerable mental state, our susceptibility to construing our colleagues’ behaviour (an email, a comment, an instruction) negatively is higher. At the same time, the likelihood that we are sufficiently focussed on the impact we have on our co-workers is reduced (particularly when we cannot physically see it). 

There is risk that we won't want to accept this responsibility for colleagues (‘Why am I supposed to look out for people if they don’t report to me?  What can I do”) but now, more than ever, it’s essential that everyone plays their part.  Five simple things to watch out for:

  1. Acknowledge your colleagues’ communications. Studies show that being ignored is worse for wellbeing than active bullying. In this online era, a thank you still carries power to lift the spirits. Let them know you’ve received their message, and you’ll respond fully when you can. Better still, proactively reach out and say hi.  
  2. Make space for contributions. When looking (yet again) at a screen filled with faces in little windows, consider whether everyone feels comfortable and able to make a contribution (if they want to, that is). Some people may be feeling isolated and team gatherings (formal or informal) may be providing a critical social lifeline.
  3. Respect roles and responsibilities. For many, there’s been a lot of upheaval and changes in roles over the past few months and this can engender a great sense of unity around the cause - all hands on deck. The flipside is that there may have been less clarity around responsibilities. Take care that a colleague’s sense of self-worth and purpose is not being undermined by changes to their role. (Particularly if it takes the form of someone else seeing an opportunity to expand their remit/take credit at another’s expense in a bit of a kudos-gaining land grab.)
  4. Don’t over-include. Contrary as it may sound given the first three suggestions, try not to insist people attend project meetings unless they need to be there (particularly if the request might come across as an assertion of power). If someone is feeling low and under pressure, there’s no need for them to attend a meeting if, in reality, they could read a short summary in a couple of minutes and find out what they needed to know/do. Of course, if they want to, and attending would help them – then go for it!
  5. Notice if someone isn’t doing so well. If you have a sense that a colleague might be struggling, check in with them. If you don’t feel comfortable to do that yourself, perhaps talk to a manager or HR to let them know you’re concerned.  

What’s that got to do with bullying?  If you flip the five suggestions round you might get something that sounds a bit like this.  

“I still haven’t had any response from the boss on the report – I worked over the weekend to finish it and sent it three days ago. Nothing. And the team wasn’t interested in my ideas at the team meeting – I felt invisible and I turned off my webcam in the end... Then Gary insisted – again - I attend the full scheduling meeting (that took two hours) – when I only needed to hear 3 minutes of it. I was already feeling really low.  Does he think that’s what my time is worth? To make it worse, after wasting my time on that, he takes over the parts of my role I really do enjoy on the Ocean project – excludes me from that… no-one’s explained why it’s changed. I feel so low…”

Anti bullying Week 2020 is being held between the 16th and 20th November. The theme this year is United Against Bullying. Read more about how you can get involved here.