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Coworker Harassment in the WFH Era: Can Bullying at Work Happen Online?

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Bullying and harassment in the workplace is, unfortunately, not a new issue for many Canadians — but, in 2022, it may be both on the rise and shifting in how and where it happens. In terms of prevalence, the majority of Canadian workers have experienced harassment or violence at work in recent years, according to a recent survey study of Canadian workplaces. But in what new ways is workplace harassment happening, and why?

One key factor that has impacted Canadian workplaces in 2022 is that — since the COVID-19 pandemic pushed more and more workers into virtual and hybrid workplaces — many people have now entered something of a work-from-home era. With many Canadians working from home more than they were a few years ago, that doesn’t mean that workplace harassment has necessarily declined. Unfortunately, workplace harassment can happen anywhere — and in many forms.

Canadian workers in 2022, whether working from home or in person, deserve safe work environments that are free from harassment, but it seems that they may not always be finding them. Read on as we explore the topic of workplace bullying and harassment in 2022 — and how we help counter toxic workplaces, both in person and online. 

Related: Pandemic has a negative impact on women in the workplace: research.

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The current state of workplace harassment in Canada

First, let’s look at the current state of bullying and harassment in the workplace. As mentioned earlier, researchers from Western University, the University of Toronto and the Canadian Labour Congress recently studied different workspaces across Canada through various surveys and interviews with employees on topics regarding verbal, sexual and online abuse. They surveyed more than 4,800 employees between the ages of 30 and 59 from October 2020 to April 2021. A total of 34 qualitative interviews were also part of the research. 

Adriana Berlingieri, Academic Research Associate at the Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women & Children at Western University, explains how the research was structured: “We have two sections, one on sexual harassment and violence, and one on harassment and violence more generally.” 


“We did not go in with a predefined definition of those two forms of harassment, and this is because often people don’t recognize their experience as sexual harassment or other forms of harassment and violence,” she adds.

Related: Career growth matters most to Gen Z workers: LinkedIn survey.

The study’s results suggest that experiences of harassment and violence are quite prevalent for workers in Canada. Specifically, the survey showed that 71.4 per cent of survey respondents (almost three-quarters of all respondents) have experienced some form of harassment and violence or sexual harassment and violence in the past two years.

Broken down further, approximately two out of every three (65 per cent) of employees shared they experienced a minimum of one form of harassment and violence at work since 2020. Nearly 44 per cent of respondents reported experiencing sexual harassment and violence while at work in the past two years. 

And, specific to online harassment, more than a quarter (26.5 per cent) of respondents said that they experienced some form of work-related online harassment in that two-year period. 

Has the pandemic impacted workplace harassment?

The study also offers insight into the impact of COVID-19 in the area of harassment amongst workers in Canada, noting an increase in severity amongst respondents who experienced some form of harassment and violence and sexual harassment. Specifically, 26 per cent of respondents who said that they experienced harassment and violence and sexual harassment and violence noted that their experiences increased in severity, while 25 per cent said the frequency of the harassment increased while being online. In terms of duration, 20 per cent said it increased. 

Related: Canada’s 20 best companies to work for in 2022. 


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What is a toxic work environment?

If harassment happens at work, then the nature of a workplace can also be examined. “Toxic” work cultures, for example, can be more than just draining — they can lead to problems in your outside life — and sometimes, you may not even notice that work is the cause of your problems. 

When it comes to workplaces, Berlingieri notes that there are certain traits that can help us identify a more toxic work environment. “There are characteristics of that kind of workplace,” Berlingieri says. “It’s one in which harassment and violence [live] on a regular basis. Where there’s a pattern of harassment upon various points, and it’s not addressed. It’s where workers have nowhere to go, or they’ve gone to someone and no action has been taken [or] where they have not been supported until that [point].”

Working in these types of negative workplaces and dealing with harassment at work can spur harm to workers. People’s lives, careers, physical health and mental health can deteriorate from negative workplace circumstances. “[That] is what happens when there’s a pattern that continues of harassment and violence that goes unaddressed,” Berlingieri notes.

Related: What is a workplace energy vampire? How to stop coworkers from draining you. 

How can coworker harassment reach people who are working from home

While we’ve established that harassment at work is an issue for Canadians, it’s important to also consider how the nature and experience of harassment might look a bit different for people in the work-from-home era. Moving forward into what might one day be a post-COVID world — with workspaces moving to be fully in person, or hybrid versions of their workrooms — it is key to recognize and acknowledge how harassment in all types of workspaces might present itself, and how we can prevent it. 

As Berlingieri notes, it is a misconception that harassment doesn’t occur when working from home.” Instead, when people work from home, harassment “just takes on other forms.” 


In the work-from-home era, workplace harassment — while mainly presenting itself in some form of verbal abuse — is still just as prevalent, however, it may be less noticeable because of the way it shows itself.

When it comes to forms of harassment at work, Berlingieri explains, “they don’t have to be physical, but when you experience them over and over again and they become a pattern — they can have the same detrimental effects as physical violence.” 

Online work, for some, may initially seem more comforting than working in an in-person space, however, it also has its downsides with cyberbullying being so prevalent in the world of the internet. 

See also: This is how to work with a toxic coworker you don’t trust.

Examples of virtual harassment in the WFH era

What forms can workplace harassment and violence take when you’re working from home? Unfortunately, having to meet virtually with someone who uses verbal intimidation, seeing a rumour spread online or sabotaging someone’s performance online are all forms of harassment — whether by accessing their files or making inappropriate jokes or sexual comments online. 

Additionally, when working remotely, these types of behaviour may be more challenging to spot, control and prevent from happening. 

As outlined in Forbes, there are plenty of ways that workplace harassment may occur when people are working from home or virtually. These may include:

  • Using inappropriate, obscene or offensive language in virtual work channels. Whether via email, messenger systems or text, harassing and/or violent language — from sexual harassment to obscene words to bullying jokes — can all happen when working from home.
  • Talking about a coworker’s appearance on video calls. Just because you aren’t physically in the same room, comments about your appearance can be just as damaging when on a video call.

Related: Canadians working from home struggle to disconnect after work: report.

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How we can create a safe space for employees

No matter where you’re working, having a safe space is one of the most important aspects of creating — and maintaining — a happy employee-employer relationship. Based on tips outlined in Forbes, here are some key things to consider when striving for a safe space for workers: 

Communication is key: Effective communication is important in all aspects of life, but most arguably most importantly in the workspace — being curious, creating open and honest conversations and supporting one another is a good place to start. 


Teamwork makes the dream work: Building honest, trust-filled relationships in the office will allow people to feel comfortable communicating their concerns, grow their skills and be honest with one another. 

Support diversity and inclusion — online and in person: Workspaces should be comfortable, open and welcoming to all people. Actively promoting diversity and inclusion in the office (online or virtually) will allow employees to feel safer, more included and appreciated. 

Cultivate a supportive, honest environment: Especially if you’re a leader in your workplace, be clear and concise with what opinions your company stands for and show your support for that in every way you can. Show employees and coworkers that you are adamant about the success of the team — and each employee individually. 

See also: Instagram is failing to stop misogynistic harassment of high-profile women in DMs: study.

Additionally, organizations can help build structures to help deter harassment and violence in the workplace.

“[As] workplaces, we need to go back and we need to look at our policies to make sure that they are comprehensive and that they include all workers — those working locally and remotely as well,” Berlingieri says. These workplace policies should “be as detailed as possible, where everyone knows, at all levels within the organization, exactly what’s expected of them, behaviour-wise.”

Strong policies can also help employees who are in a position of having to report workplace harassment or violence. If workplace policies are designed to clearly indicate and outline a reporting process, then workers can better know what to expect should they report an incident, and what will happen if a report is investigated.

“We need really robust working-from-home agreements that include all forms of harassment… that also includes domestic violence,” Berlingieri says.


A safe and happy workplace leads to a happier life, and in this case, creating awareness, risk assessments and required training are the key to success. 

You may also like: This is how this WOC is balancing entrepreneurship and motherhood in Canada.

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