Workers in public-facing roles in industries such as healthcare, law enforcement, transportation, retail, and social care are most likely to encounter work-related violence. However, those who work in customer service such as call-centre staff can also experience violence and aggression over the phone.
Violence and aggression in the workplace can lead to employees needing to take time off work either for physical injuries or to deal with the mental impact of being assaulted. This will require employers to look for replacement staff and make sickness absence payments. If it can be proven that an employer’s negligence led to an employee suffering abuse, fines and penalties could be enforced.
The Health and Safety Executive define workplace violence as:
‘Any incident in which a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work.’
This includes both verbal and physical abuse.
The Health & Safety at Work etc. Act and the Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulations both stipulate that employers have a duty to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of all employees while they are at work. They also outline the need to assess the risks that employees may be exposed to. Acts of violence and aggression are included.
Any acts of non-consensual physical violence that happen while working and that result in death, specified injury, or render the employee unable to conduct their normal work tasks for seven or more days, must be reported to the enforcing authority under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases, and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations, also known as RIDDOR.
The workplace should always be a safe and secure place for workers to conduct their work tasks and thrive. When a fellow colleague, client, customer, or member of the public is aggressive or violent, the working environment can turn toxic.
Examples of aggressive behaviours at work include:
- Sending threating/abusive emails
- Physical intimidation – getting into someone’s face, refusing to move out of someone’s way
- Sexual harassment
- Use of abusive language and swearing
- Preventing others from talking and raising vocal tone so that their voice cannot be heard
Examples of violent behaviour in the workplace include:
- Physical assault – such as hitting, kicking, spitting, or punching
- Sexual assault
- Throwing objects with the intention to hurt an individual
Dealing with violence and aggression committed by one employee to another can be just as difficult, if not more difficult, than if the act were to be carried out by a member of the public or customer. This is because it may highlight a failure of the controls in place to highlight internal incidents. It can also have a great impact on the ongoing work atmosphere.
When violence and aggression occurs, it has a great impact on internal relationships between colleagues and teams, which can lead to a reduction in staff morale and even employees leaving the company for fear for their own safety.
It is important that employers have policies and procedures in place to prevent work-related violence and aggression, as well as strategies in place for when an incident occurs. Dealing with violence and aggression can vary from business to business, so it is important that these measures are proportionate to the level of risk.
As part of these measures, employers must carry out a risk assessment to understand who may be at risk, the circumstances in which they may face harm, and what controls are either in place currently or need to be established. Involving the employees who may be exposed to violence and aggression is vital.
Risk assessments must be reviewed if the threat of violence to staff increases for any reason. This might include a change in business location to a high crime area or a change of working hours where the risk of an incident may increase.
It’s a good idea to have a zero-tolerance policy to violence and aggression. This will assure employees that their employer takes the matter seriously. This must be backed up with policies and procedures that are enforced by heavy repercussions for any employee who verbally or physically assaults a colleague.
If an employee has been the victim of work-related violence, employers must ensure that they respond appropriately to the incident. It is important to make sure that any victim has adequate support for the mental impact such circumstances can have. For example, occupational health or employee assistance programmes can provide counselling services and other forms of help.
Providing conflict management and violence and aggression training to employees and managers will ensure that everyone is aware of what work-related violence is, the steps required to prevent it from occurring, and how to safeguard themselves where possible.
Training staff will equip them with the necessary tools to stay calm, while in situations where violence could escalate. Training will also help employees identify potential incidents long before they occur. For instance, taking note when internal working relationships are under stress.
Managers should know to make sure team members feel comfortable to speak up about any potential warning signs they spot. So, that interventions can occur early on.
All staff should also understand their duty to report incidents. Reports can be made to a line manager, supervisor, or team leader, whomever they feel comfortable with informing so that an incident report can be raised and an investigation can start.
Training should be recorded and refreshed at regular intervals. When an incident occurs, it is beneficial to consider whether additional and perhaps specific training is needed, along with the review of the violence and aggression risk assessment.
Many things can cause an individual to become violent to a colleague or an individual while they are at work.
This can include heightened levels of stress, workplace bullying, receiving bad news, miscommunication, poor service, ongoing disputes, personality clashes, and substance abuse. Compromised mental health can also lead to people being on the receiving end of a violent outburst.
Employers must respond to all threats of violence with serious and appropriate action. Their response should be immediate to prevent actual physical harm from occurring. This response should include an investigation into any incident that is conducted by a trained member of staff.
This will then determine what actions are taken. This may be disciplinary action, if the threat was made by a fellow employee. Or it may involve law enforcement, if the threat was made by someone outside of the organisation.
Employers must also take care to provide support and assurance to the threatened employee that the threat is being handled.
It is important to follow through with cases to ensure the perpetrator receives the proper consequences of their action, and the victim sees that their welfare is paramount.
It is beneficial for managers to complete a prevention and management of violence and aggression course so that they have the competence to handle threats when they arise.