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Despite empty offices, workplace bullying on the rise

Despite empty offices, workplace bullying on the rise

by Sarita RAO 5 min. 01.03.2021 From our online archive
Anti-harassment charity discloses 2020 numbers to the Luxembourg Times
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Harassment in the workplace has become more common during the pandemic of the past year, according to a charity that helps victims of office bullying.

Nika is one of two people who experienced bullying in the workplace who spoke to the Luxembourg Times on the condition of not being mentioned by their real name. She worked at two creches for almost a decade, with minimum pay and paid leave. Workers were offered a bonus if they took no sick days. Not easy in a creche, where viruses and disease spread easily.

“I was reprimanded for small things daily. I couldn’t sleep at night, particularly on Sundays wondering what nasty surprises I’d get in the next five days. I lost confidence in my professional skills,” she says.

Bullying came from the very top, while middle management stayed silent. Nika recounted how adults would regularly cry at work, favouritism was rife, and the company counted on the fact that foreign workers would not manage to enforce their lawful rights.

“You had to be available non-stop, for the evening or the next day. You were never given an option, just told at the last minute which hours you would be working. You had no private life, and you couldn’t plan family time or even a doctor’s appointment,” she recalled.

A co-worker suggested Nika should visit a doctor, who put her on sick leave, prescribing sedatives. The ITM labour inspection lent her a sympathetic ear, but their advise to her was to seek legal advice - or to change jobs. “I felt they turned a blind eye to bullying at work because it was easier. If it’s not a question of life and death, they won’t send work inspectors,” she said.

The HR department was part of the problem, Nika said, while workers’ representatives were constantly undermined or treated dismissively as the creche owners did not take the complaints seriously. “When it starts at the top, no one can do anything and private legal costs are exorbitant,” she said.

Undermined at fintech start-up

Last year, the Mobbing asbl charity received more than 600 calls, and people filed a total of 155 new cases – a 17% increase from 2019. This year, there were already 23 new cases and 73 calls in January alone, an indication that the pace may still be picking up this year.

“In some situations, home working has put people under more control, and they have had to be available all the time. In others, people were left out of groups and not copied in [on emails],” said Magdalena Mida, Mobbing's director. 

Calls to the non-profit group, funded by the ministry of employment have also risen after the Semedo case, Mida said. When people call, Mobbing provides a safe place to talk and allows a neutral person to evaluate the situation. 

Jane is the second harassment victim in this story. 

She worked for a fintech start-up which she joined after taking time off with her young children. The German chief executive’s micro-management made it feel like a goldfish bowl, she said. When the man left, and was quickly replaced, Jane had a fairly senior position. But as the new boss started to recruit, he excluded Jane from attending interviews. Then, she says, he began to give her ridiculous tasks, designed to make her fail and belittle her in meetings.

Jane alerted the head office, but things were “swept under the carpet”. Soon she lost her confidence, became anxious in everyday situations at home, and increasingly tearful. Eventually her doctor suggested she was being  bullied at work, something he had seen in his patients before. “It’s a very [taboo] subject in Luxembourg and I wasn’t aware of any support organisations,” she says.

In more than three quarters of the cases Mobbing handled in 2019, the abuse came from above, with almost 70% saying that it took place daily or almost daily. In almost 40% of cases, those being bullied worried that their contract might be at stake or their reputation could suffer.

“Luxembourg is a small country, so very often people prefer to resign and move on, but we need to stop this attitude that people can do whatever they want and harm people psychologically,” said Mida, adding: “In my opinion we need rules and a stronger prevention campaign.”

Jane quit her job, and started in a new position within six weeks. She has since been promoted. Her old boss was eventually asked to leave the company following sexual harassment allegations. 

What to do?

If you think you are the subject of bullying at work, you should write down what is happening, how often it happens, so you can create a chronological report, Mida said. Victims of bullying should first try internal channels such as the HR department. If none of the internal options yield anything, Mida’s team can prepare a letter to the boss of the company, who is deemed responsible for the health of his or her employees at work. 

“We want to make the boss of the company aware that it is his or her responsibility, and we offer our services which includes talking to the bully and providing professional recommendations for a solution, which might take the form of mediation,” says Mida. She also suggests that victims seek help from a psychologist or doctor to “stay healthy during the process”. 

Nika says it took her almost two years to feel normal and sleep properly again after she left her toxic work environment. She now works for “a wonderful employer who trusts me and values my professional skills”. Reticent to tell others what to do, she said that while none of the official channels worked, it helped to know her rights and connect with co-workers to feel less alone. Jane suggests talking to someone not related to the company for a neutral view.

“Bottling it up is very damaging,” she said.

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