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Toxic work relationships can be made worse by remote work and times of stress, an expert says. Here’s how to cope.


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Toxic work relationships can be made worse by remote work and times of stress, an expert says. Here’s how to cope.

This story is available exclusively on Business Insider Prime. Join BI Prime and start reading now. The COVID-19 crisis has ushered in a new era of remote work to the office world.While there are some benefits— like the lack of commute and more flexibility — there are hidden consequences, too. Employees dealing with any toxic…

Toxic work relationships can be made worse by remote work and times of stress, an expert says. Here’s how to cope.

This story is available exclusively on Business Insider Prime.
Join BI Prime and start reading now.

  • The COVID-19 crisis has ushered in a new era of remote work to the office world.
  • While there are some benefits— like the lack of commute and more flexibility — there are hidden consequences, too. Employees dealing with any toxic work relationships may find that being remote exacerbates them, says Bernadette Jones, co-founder of Visionova HR Consulting

  • There’s a long list of problems that can be made worse by isolation and the stress of these troubled times, including unwelcome jokes or humiliating emails.
  • Tracy Chou, CEO of Block Party, a consumer app for creating safe online experiences, says people can combat toxic work relationships by talking to a trusted support network and mastering their work communication devices, among other techniques. 
  • Jones also advises talking to a manager or leaning on Employee Assistance Programs (EAP).
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The COVID-19 crisis has ushered in a new era of remote work for offices employees. People in hard-hit areas have been 100% remote since March. While some companies are slowly reopening, others will almost certainly have some — if not all — of their workers stay remote through the summer. Or perhaps forever: Some CEOs say that they’re so surprised by how productive employees have been from home that they’re rethinking whether work life will ever be fully centered in an office again.

While there are benefits for remote workers — like more flexibility and a lack of commute — there are some hidden consequences, too:

Employees who are dealing with any sort of toxic work relationship may find that remote work exacerbates the situation, says Bernadette Jones, co-founder of Visionova HR Consulting. Jones is a specialist in anti-bullying and sexual harassment training, effective supervision, and employee engagement.

“For a lot of people, this is a more stressful time because they are working remotely and have never worked remotely,” she says. “One of the challenges with remote work is there may not be as much communication with supervisors and managers, and there can be a tendency to feel out-of-the-loop or isolated.”

In that situation, work life can start to mimic social media and become a ripe ground for bullying: “There’s an opportunity for inappropriate behaviors and it’s going to isolate you even more,” Jones said. 

One of the most common forms of workplace bullying is “when things that happen after-hours are brought into the workplace,” she says, such as one worker circulating another worker’s photo or Facebook or Twitter post. It may be more difficult for a worker to know this is going on if such sharing is happening in private chat channels.

Plus, divisive tensions in the nation have never been higher, especially as coworkers talk about world events like the COVID-19 pandemic to protests over George Floyd’s death. Those conversations could lead to racist-, sexist-, or ageism-tinged comments — or even just plain bullying behavior. 

Working remote may make it harder for employees to feel validated when dealing with such comments, since they may happen in private chats or video calls, unseen by others in an office.

“If you’re working closely with a person who may be harassing and now you’re working remotely, it may become worse,” Jones said. “It might even change or become different, particularly when you have to video-conference: Now that person is actually working with you in your home, which is a little more of an intimate situation than if you were at work, and so individuals may drop their guard.”

An even more common issue is that two coworkers that tend to butt heads a lot have few ways to neutralize their relationship when face-to-face meetings are limited.

“Day-to-day interactions, where you just feel confident in just walking in and talking to someone, that can be a challenge,” Jones says. 

There are other forms of bullying that are uniquely “online” work behaviors, too. For instance, when a mistake occurs, or even just the perception of a mistake, it might not be something that comes up briefly during a meeting. Instead, an email about it — perhaps blaming an individual — is sent to everyone, which can be more humiliating. 

“That is a form of bullying, exposing people to ridicule,” Jones says. 

How to solve the toxic situation

If an employee has been the subject of toxic behaviors, the first step is to try and find people to confide in, says Tracy Chou, CEO of Block Party, an app designed to give people a safer online experiences. While the Block Party app is geared toward consumers and their social media, not employees, Chou’s idea for the app came from personal experience. She’s a software engineer who’s been advocating for diversity in tech for years and as such, she’s been the subject to a lot of abuse — online and elsewhere.

When online abuse happens, particularly at work, Chou says that finding trusted people to discuss it with can help. 

“Gaslighting people might say to you that whatever you are experiencing is not that big a deal,” she says. “That can really eff with your head.” 

So it’s important to have people that can validate your experience, she says.

Ideally, an employees can talk to their manager about it.

But if that isn’t safe, look for a colleague at the company to talk to, perhaps someone else who has some authority, Jones says. 

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Chou also says to learn all the details and tricks of the tech tools that are used to work remotely, particularly any remote communication products. Create good passwords and ensure that someone else can’t, for instance, take over your accounts. Learn how to turn off the camera on video calls, how to get keyword alerts for Slack messages, or how to get your iPhone to show you emails from your boss on the lockscreen, for instance.

These tools can give you a sense of control that you won’t miss important messages or make other mistakes.

“Psychological harassment feels really bad when you don’t have control — the more you feel like you can assert control or agency, the better,” says Chou. Try to think like the harasser, she says, and what they might do, and then use the aforementioned tools to help you put protections in place.

You may want to read materials from various national anti-bullying and cyberbullying associations, too, Jones says, as they may offer ideas on how to empower yourself. If your employer has an employee assistance program, known as an EAP, which provides mental health services, that can also be a valuable (and often overlooked) resource. 

These counselors can help you brainstorm solutions, or they can help you manage stress until the situation resolves itself or you can move on to a new job.

“They are not going to call your employer and say an employee called and now I have to report it,” she says. 

Getting support can help you figure out what’s happening and why, and get the tools you need to turn a toxic situation into a respectful one.

“The key to many of these problems is getting support,” Jones says, “Whether from a manager, a trusted colleague, or a family member.” 

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