Commentary: Why toxic workplaces can mean bullying colleagues

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HONG KONG: The pandemic has shone a spotlight on mental health like never before. In many developed economies, COVID-19 has precipitated a Great Resignation and brought about major shifts in work culture – hybrid work models, mental health days, and company transparency are strategies used to retain talent in a tight labour market. 

Toxic workplaces – generally negative work environments of dysfunction, conflict and bullying that result in disengagement, stress and even trauma – exist globally. Better.com CEO Vishal Garg, notorious for firing 900 workers on a Zoom call, reportedly called employees names, even accusing them of “stealing” from the company by being unproductive.

They have gained attention in Singapore. Employees, it seems, are no longer holding back on calling out toxic workplaces.

A CNA report on 10 individuals’ experiences included a boss who sent derogatory text messages using the phrases “human trash”, “you deserve to die”, and “your mother should have had an abortion”.

In 2021, it was reported that a former WWF Singapore employee was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after alleged bullying by her ex-boss. She told CNA that her former boss constantly criticised her performance and manipulated her into thinking that everything was her fault, to the point where she dreaded going into the office everyday.

Bullying often starts at the top. The power struggle between superiors and their subordinates is often pegged as the reason for toxicity not being called out, with third parties cited as being too scared to come forward at the risk of losing their jobs.

But in a toxic workplace, things might not be as clear cut as this suggests.

FURTHER HARMING COLLEAGUES SEEN AS RIVALS FOR EVIL PLEASURE

Colleagues are not always silent, fearful observers. Far from feeling sorry for co-workers, some may experience a sense of schadenfreude, or “evil pleasure”, and even join in the bullying.

We recently investigated how abusive behaviour by supervisors can influence interactions between victims and their colleagues.

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