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Optimum Talks Blog

Stop The Stigma | Chapter 1: My Boss is a COVID Bully

by Sandra Boyd + Dr. Bill Howatt
November 25, 2020


The Scenario 

The president of the company called me with one directive: “Time to get back in the office!” Although I was looking forward to reconnecting in person with my team, I was also concerned about my partner who has an autoimmune disease. In addition to my concerns, several of my colleagues confided to me about their worries, from family caregiving to anxiety about commuting and extending their cohort. I gently asked the president if the company had considered updating the work-from-home policy to support those employees that have concerns about returning to the workplace. The response was just a few sentences, but it set the tone for the company and the COVID bullying that was coming down the pipeline. “Getting back to the workplace is good for mental health and if employees are stressed, they should try hitting the gym.” During the next few months, this leader ignored physical distancing, didn’t wear a mask in meetings, and openly expressed their disdain for all things COVID. When others didn’t follow suit, the president typically responded with an eye-roll.

Reactions from a Leadership Lens

This individual was reasonable in their ask. Unfortunately, the behaviour of the president is not a surprise, as many leaders have taken to using their power to bully employees into following their beliefs and values, undermining a world pandemic backed by science, and dare one say, common sense.

Leaders need to be aware of the deep impact their behaviours have on others and understand that their values are not always shared by the rest of the team. What’s good for one person’s mental health is not always appropriate for others, and the mental health of employees is not up for a leader to diagnose. By leading in this way, team members become afraid to confront the issue and often end up conforming to the leader’s approach. While the leader may think this is a good thing, what they’re ultimately doing is instilling fear and uncertainty into the organization and eroding engagement and productivity.

Reactions from a Behavioural Science Lens

This president’s behaviour is irresponsible and uncaring to the employee’s mental health, as well as fiscally naive. Most provinces have occupational health and safety legislation that mandates leaders mitigate the risk of harassment and workplace violence. No employee, regardless of their title, may mock, taunt, or intimidate, as this is a form of harassment.

This president doesn’t know or care that they have a legal responsibility to facilitate a psychologically safe workplace, free from harassment.

This president’s behaviour exposes them to the risk of an internal HR harassment compliant, minister of labour investigation, and/or financial loss. If this employee is pushed to the point they go on short-term disability due to mental health duress or even leaves the organization, it can result in turnover costs or have a spillover effect on other team members’ motivation and productivity.

This person reported to the president in a critical role. Top talent often will not tolerate abuse; they tend to move on. Business Consultant Bradford Smart suggests that turnover costs are typically four times an employee’s base salary and the cost to replace an executive can be many times their base salary.[1]

The Takeaways

  • Leaders that continue down the path of the old “command and control” leadership model are at increased risk of influencing employees to find new jobs, facing harassment complaints, losing credibility, and being replaced themselves.
  • Courage in the workplace is difficult when everyone around you is engaging in dangerous behaviour and you’re the odd one out, but it’s important to remember that often you have factors behind you such as HR teams and legal requirements that can support your stance of coming forward.
  • If you’re unsure how to deal with a bully, it can be helpful to meet with a third party like an employment lawyer who can explain your rights. If you’re losing sleep and the situation is impacting your mental health, seek professional support to help you cope with this difficult time.
  • If you’re working in what feels like a psychologically unsafe workplace where leadership doesn’t appear to care about employees’ well-being, it may be time to dust off your resume. Although it may not be ideal timing, there’s a feeling of power in knowing you can control your destiny by exploring your value in the marketplace and preparing for the future.


Want to join the conversation? Tell us your story about mental health in the workplace by emailing

Does your organization require training or tools to better support mental health in-house? Contact us to discuss your unique challenges and to arrange a free demo to learn how our integrated services can help.


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[1] Smart, B., & Smart, G. (2005). Topgrading (How To Hire, Coach and Keep A Players). Pritchett, LP.


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