Workplace bullying and sick leave during Covid-19

The workplace has changed a lot in the last four months due to the coronavirus which has infected over 500 000 people in South Africa.
The world of work has changed a lot in the last four months. Many companies have introduced remote work while others continue to work with short staff while observing social distancing.

If your workplace has turned rather hostile due to Covid-19 panic, you’re not alone. Although sickness in the workplace is not uncommon, the strict guidelines in place to reduce transmission of Covid-19 and constant news updates on the spread of the disease, can make people hyper-aware and even suspicious of their co-workers’ health.

Gawie Cillié, employment relations expert and lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB), says the alarming rate of infections could potentially provoke social stigma against anyone perceived to have been in contact with the virus or who shows some of the symptoms even if they are not infected. 

“Stigma is associated with a lack of knowledge about how Covid-19 spreads, a need to blame others, fears about disease and death, increased tension amongst teams and gossip that spreads rumours and myths. This very stigma can result in people hiding their illness to avoid discrimination and prevent people from seeking health care immediately,” said Mr  Cillié.

He says employees who have contracted the virus might experience bullying when they return to work.  

“Bullying can be described as repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards an employee or a group of employees that creates a risk to their health and safety.”

“If people are stifling coughs to avoid harassment from colleagues, or being avoided unnecessarily in the office environment, even with the 1.5 metre safety guidelines in place, hand-sanitising and masks, then management needs to intervene,” he said.

Mr Cillié says labour legislation is there to protect employees and the most relevant are the Occupational Health and Safety Act and the Basic Conditions of Employment Act.

He says whether employees are stigmatised on returning to work after being in quarantine or are being exposed to senseless fear-mongering, employers can manage bullying in the workplace by focusing on the psychological safety climate and taking the following actions:

– Amplify the voices and stories of people who have experienced Covid-19 and have recovered, emphasising the high recovery rate

– Establish a “people first” language that respects and empowers people in all communication channels.  Examples of how to use inclusive language and less stigmatising terminology, include:

– Talk about people who have Covid-19 in human terms; don’t refer to people with the disease as “Covid-19 cases” or “victims”.

– Speak accurately about the risks of Covid-19, based on scientific data and the latest official health advice.  Do not repeat or share unconfirmed rumours.

– Do talk positively and emphasise the effectiveness of prevention and treatment measures. Do not dwell on the negative, or messages that convey threat.  We need to walk together to help keep those who are most vulnerable safe.

– Actively encourage engagement with employees by regularly checking-in with employees, including those working remotely, as to their well-being.

Mr Cillié says the many workplace challenges posed by Covid-19, requires “collaboration between employers and employees, and a mind-set of wanting to understand each other’s’ interests and concerns in an effort in finding common ground.”