Employee psychological safety, a vital factor in any organization’s productivity, is increasingly under threat. With a recent Boston University study showing that cases of depression and anxiety went up by 300% last year, employees have never been at greater risk of burnout. However, while much of this recent wave of adverse mental health is due to the pandemic’s direct effects, other factors are at play, too. Alongside COVID-19, a rising trend of online harassment is impacting psychological well-being and performance for a large minority of employees.
According to a study published earlier this year, over 40% of Americans reported experiencing severe online hate or harassment—a significant increase compared with previous years. Respondents to the study said that every variety of online harassment (i.e., cyberstalking, bullying, doxxing)—from physical threats to online bullying—has become more frequent and more intense over the past year. As we live more of our lives online, the likelihood of experiencing online harassment is increasing.
Thanks in part to greater exposure of individuals’ personal data to the public domain, online harassment has also never been easier for malicious actors and, as a result, is hitting closer to home for many victims. Particularly for employees who are female, identify as LGBTQ, or come from a minority background, online harassment is now a severe threat that needs to be taken seriously by employers. In 2020, the Anti-Defamation League reported a 68% year-on-year increase in racist, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-Semitic messages compared with 2019.
Psychological Safety Is Vital for Workplace Performance
Psychological safety for employees is not just a personal matter. As the distinction between our online and offline lives blurs, virtual harassment can lead to employees’ experiencing increasingly extreme emotional distress, dramatically lower morale, and decreased productivity when at work.
On the flip side, psychological safety is a keen determining factor for successful organizations. In a landmark 2-year-long study of high-performing teams, tech giant Google determined that psychological safety was the top factor that made the best teams stand out. According to Google, members in high-performing teams benefited tremendously from feeling safe enough to take risks and be vulnerable within their roles.
Protecting Employees from Online Harassment
While businesses undoubtedly have a role to play in protecting their employees from online harassment, doing so within your organization can be daunting. Based on our experience working with hundreds of leading companies at Abine, here are three essential steps organizations can take to protect their employees’ psychological well-being.
The best way to understand how online harassment impacts your employees is to ask them directly. Without making it seem like a formal request, ask individuals within your organization about their current or previous experiences of online harassment either in person or through an anonymous survey.
Ultimately, you need to understand where employees feel threatened online (i.e., on which social media channels), what kinds of threats they face, and how their personal and professional lives are impacted. Taking stock of the issue is vital to planning how your organization can best help employees overcome it.
Even today, too many organizations don’t pay enough attention to their employees’ health issues via the concept of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Where victims are left to suffer in silence, the result of this kind of policy will inevitably be high turnover rates and demoralized employees. Instead, you should work toward creating a workplace where no one has to suffer alone.
To create a proactive culture around psychological well-being, management needs to make it clear to everyone within your organization that they take online harassment seriously. Breaking down the stigma around online harassment can help reassure victimized employees. Openness is vital because victims of online harassment are often reluctant to share their experiences for fear of being marginalized within the workplace.
It is also essential to back up openness with clear policies that pledge support to victims of harassment within your workplace. To do this, your organization can expand policies around sexual harassment and social media to include a broader definition of online abuse.
The most effective way for your organization to help mitigate employee online harassment is to help prevent it from happening in the first place.
On one level, prevention means training employees, particularly those who have to be active on social media for business purposes, to minimize their exposure to online backlash. Employees also need to be instructed in good cybersecurity hygiene around security stalwarts like password use and account management, which are vital for reducing the risk of doxxing.
However, a crucial part of keeping employees safe from online harassment is helping them minimize the ammunition they unknowingly give to anyone who wishes to target them. Doing so means giving employees access to tools that specialize in the proactive removal of employee personal information.
Hundreds of data brokers are constantly working to find, collate, and sell your employees’ personal information to anyone who goes looking for it. As a result, it is far too easy for a malicious actor to uncover an employee’s phone number, home address, marital status, and more.
While opting out of these data brokers is possible, doing so is incredibly (and intentionally) tedious. It also needs to be done continuously to keep someone’s information offline. In response, your organization can provide privacy as a benefit service that offers proactive removal of employee personal information.
When it comes to “don’t ask, don’t tell” around online harassment, organizations need to remove the “don’t.” In part due to the ongoing digital transformation that defines our lives, applying different standards to employee security online and offline is rapidly becoming a false dichotomy.
For employees to feel safe, happy, and productive at work, their online safety needs to be considered at the same level as their real-life security. Organizations should act now to invest in their employees’ psychological well-being.
Rob Shavell is CEO of Abine/DeleteMe, an online privacy company. Shavell has been quoted as a privacy expert in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Telegraph, NPR, ABC, NBC, and Fox. He is also a vocal proponent of privacy legislation reform, including the California Privacy Rights Act (CPRA).