Why and how small businesses must address workplace bullying

Young boss bullying the candidate in her job meeting

Bullying is a serious issue in small business workplaces across Australia. It doesn’t just impact those involved but business profits, revenue, productivity and morale.

Since COVID-19 there has been an increase in bullying and a reduction in workplace trust. Estimates published from The Productivity Commission indicate workplace bullying costs the Australian economy up to $36 billion per annum.   

Toxic and bullying behaviours are crippling for small businesses when valuable employees exit and/or make complaints with Fair Work resulting in WorkCover claims.

A report from the  Psychosocial Safety Climate & Better Productivity in Australian Workplaces (PSC) commissioned by Work Safe Australia found:

  1. Low PSC is related to higher sickness absences and presenteeism.
  2. Depression is related to higher sickness absence and presenteeism; and
  3. Psychological distress is related to higher sickness absence and presenteeism

These findings will impact small businesses who don’t have the resources or skills to navigate COVID normal and steps to remain open and viable.


Since COVID-19 there has been an escalation of bullying and harassment issues and erosion of trust as a result. 

Using COVID-19 as an “excuse” to ratify bullying by staff and owners has intensified with passive-aggressive behaviours going unchecked and sanctioned by separation. 

Neuroscience of human nature shows that in crises, existing harmful behaviours are magnified.  Whilst there has been an enforced moratorium of face to face bullying, many have pivoted delivery of unacceptable behaviours. Or have become temporarily dormant.  As will be evident when work from home restrictions are rolled back.

There has been an increase in discrimination, micro-management, sexual harassment, KPI and sales pressures and toxic employee behaviours going under the radar.  Of concern is when COVID safety obligations being ignored by staff and protection requests being denied by business owners.  The latter issues can shut down a business or receive heavy fines due to legislation.

Intervention is needed now

Most workplaces have and will continue to be impacted for some time by COVID-19. Even for those with nil or low issues, the challenges ongoing can create the perfect firestorm for future conflict. Prevention and intervention strategies are essential.

Areas to review and implement

  1. Not all working from home environments are the same. Know the limitations each employee has, redefine tasks and workload to suit, setting clear boundaries and expectations.
  2. Communicate openly with employees on the psychological risks and what systems are available or may need to be implemented to support them.
  3. Revisit policies and communicate a genuine open-door policy.
  4. Implement Flexible Work Arrangements where practical and appropriate.
  5. If working from home is to be continued, consider how office space can 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 causes. Have brave conversations.  Take notice of all the small incidents immediately. Listen to what is being said fully.
  7. Create collective goals for accountability for all parties.
  8. Review how remote work is monitored. Google Drive and Dropbox are favourites. Schedule planned interactions with workers and create social interaction once a week.
  9. Check in with those in management and supervisor roles who monitor and support teams remotely.
  10. Workers can often fall through the cracks when exclusion happens. Monitor plans for inclusion.
  11. Monitor how staff are responding to daily situations and how they may differ from pre-COVID.

Summing up

Trust is the cornerstone of healthy workplaces.   Eradicating bullying and the underpinning behaviours will minimise financial, reputation and human damage. Don’t turn a blind eye – take ownership.

Maureen Kyne, Founder, Maureen Kyne & Associates