Return to office could result in rise of ‘Covid bullying’, businesses told

Nusrat Ghani
WARNING: From Ben Stepney, Thomson Snell & Passmore

Ben Stepney, a senior associate at Tunbridge Wells-based Thomson Snell & Passmore, says workers that have been furloughed, those that suffer from long Covid, and those who have not been vaccinated are all at risk of being ‘shunned’ by colleagues.

Writing in his law blog, Mr Stepney said: “Bullying and harassment remain significant workplace issues despite a growing awareness of the problem.

“Furthermore, these issues have been exacerbated by the Covid pandemic, with studies showing that Covid sufferers, the unvaccinated and furloughed workers suffered from discriminatory behaviours and stigma.”

He said that this behaviour could rise after the guidance to work from home was lifted this week and more workers return to their offices.

He said: “Studies by the British Medical Journal have shown that people who have been diagnosed with or having previously had the virus were more likely to experience workplace bullying.

“This includes ‘long-covid’ sufferers, whose condition is viewed as an ongoing concern rather than one of the past. Equally, those who refuse the vaccination, be it for religious beliefs or personal views, were more likely to be shunned by colleagues and viewed with suspicion according to a study by Unison trade union.

“A similar phenomena is seen with furloughed workers or part-time workers, who were more generally viewed as less important than fully working colleagues or their productivity and drive unreasonably questioned according to research by King’s College London.”

He continued: “Remember many of these issues would have remained largely under the surface whilst employees were working from home and having minimal contact with each other. However, a return to the workplace will reunite a large group of people impacted differently by the pandemic and this can lead to cases of bullying.”

Some tell-tale signs of bullying included an employee’s job performance deteriorating for no apparent reason, a gregarious employee becoming withdrawn, an employee calling in sick regularly, or an employee consistently sitting away from another employee during meetings.

Mr Stepney told the Times that the legal ramifications included threat of an employment tribunal.

He said: “An employee who is being bullied is normally expected to raise a grievance in the first instance.”

He continued: “An employee who is dissatisfied with the way their grievance has been handled could potentially resign and claim they have been constructively dismissed. 

“Where the bullying relates to a protected characteristic, the employee may bring a discrimination claim, which they can choose to do whilst remaining in employment.”

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