Australia is currently experiencing an increase in occupational violence. Employees are more commonly being subject to acts of aggression and violence by patients, customers and the general public. For the sake of this commentary, I will refer to the occupational violence divisions of External Occupational Violence and Client-Initiated Occupational Violence, but not Internal Organisational Violence – which is itself a significant issue which warrants further discussion, though perhaps from more of an HR point of view. These three sub-types have been identified by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health Visit DOSH here
At the midway point of 2019, statistics for the state of Victoria indicated a 60% increase in cases of workers experiencing occupational violence (OV). This is just since 2015. The two northern states on the eastern seaboard had similar data, with both Queensland and New South Wales both sitting at just under a 50% increase.
Mainstream media outlets and tabloid current affairs programmes may run loud, sensationalized headlines referring to foreign immigrant demographics, ice epidemics, the state of Medicare and many other reasons as to why this is occurring. As employers, whilst we need to participate in those societal conversations about why there is an increase – we mustn’t let our focus just be with the causation dialogue – we must also look at how to address the problem at ground level. For those of our staff who are front of house – they face the threat day in and day out and we must ensure they are equipped to deal with any threats of OV in the workplace.
Often those individuals drawn to roles where they are helping others in need of care; such as nurses, doctors, disability support workers, personal care assistants, etc. (who are far more likely to experience OV than most) focus on the primary care of the aggressor before they even consider themselves and their wellbeing. As employers, whilst our core clientele requires support, care and assistance – we must remember to ensure that we apply that same duty of care and support to our employees who are the boots on the ground – providing those very services that we are so proud to offer.
Occupational Violence is not just a problem for the Health and Safety Manager, and no one else. It has far reaching implications for a business and wider networks – and whilst it may be a societal issue – as refrained by the media outlets; it is certainly a workplace issue for many of us, if not the most pressing one at present, based on the statistics provided above.
The individual implications of this problem are clear. From physical and psychological injury, to long term detriment to their livelihood – there is no difference here to being attacked in a street or being involved in a terrible car accident. That said, suffering at the hands of a patient or client can have far more psychological consequences than the standard physical incident however. At work, we ought to feel in a safe space. Outside of our private homes, we spend more time at work than anywhere else – and in many ways they are more familiar environments to us than any other. Once the comfort zone component has been removed – the fall can be harsh. One least expects to be the recipient of random aggression within their homes or work – and when it happens it can shake a person to their core. Over the years, the number of individuals I have worked with who have experienced some form of OV is almost paired evenly with the number of individuals who have been unable to return to the said workplace – where even seeing the physical building or perhaps a logo of the employer can have triggering effects. The adjustment disorders they experience are all the more difficult to overcome due to the degree of ease they associated with the premises prior to the incident. As an Injury Manager, these are some of the most difficult cases to facilitate back to substantive duties with a full clearance, and more often than not require a return to alternate locations (at the very least for some period of time).
Suffering physical damage to one’s person is a lifetime affliction. Many injuries cannot ever be fully recovered – and their ability to engage in some of their preferred pastimes may need to end (as may their chosen field of work). The psychological impact is of course (as previously noted) significant and can impact their social network, familial relationships, libido and general health. Should they be unable to maintain employment in their chosen field – what are the prospects of gaining suitable, alternate employment elsewhere? Age, qualifications, location (particularly in regional areas) are all factors that may make this a nigh impossible task. We have a legal and moral obligation to ensure our employees are safe, and that extends to their ongoing livelihood and their wellbeing outside of employment. This is not to say we are liable for their out of work activities of course, but an employer of choice works to encourage content workers, with their employment not being a factor in dissatisfaction in their circumstances.
When OV occurs, it impacts many, not just the victim. Witnesses, colleagues, family members and the organisation itself are all parties to the issue, and there can be long term negative outcomes as a result. Being a topic of contemporary media attention, more often than not OV becomes very public. Apart from the standard PR nightmares related to that – it detracts from the provisioning of the core services our organisations are there to perform.
Particularly in the health sector, it is becoming increasingly difficult to attract quality employees, and we are looking at other options such as engaging foreign nationals on class 186 and 187 visas, and other strategies to entice potential staff. Occupational Violence further dissuades quality personnel from entering our industries. Without great employees we are unable to provide great service. The need to address OV also has an impact on staff morale. Be it ongoing information sessions about self-protection, or the placement of an un/armed guard onsite – these initiatives are not always conducive to a ‘positive and happy’ working environment – and whilst perhaps necessary, may not be the image or culture we wish to spruik. Whilst I will address cost impact in the following paragraph – it must be noted that increased funds directed towards addressing/overcoming/challenging OV means that there may be less available funds to direct towards workplace enhancements such as amenities, social events, and even individual pay rises. Having a reputation as a workplace that is behind the eight ball in relation to culture or salaries means your ability to attract new staff is further hindered. Those in regional areas will experience even harsher realities when it comes to looking to employ top grade candidates.
Even the most righteous of organisations, be they non-for-profits or Collins Street corporates – need to monitor their bottom lines. Decreased cost efficiency means less available funds – which inevitably impacts the ability to provide quality goods or services, as well as to fairly remunerate staff, and even continue to be operational for any long-term period of time. As such, it is necessary and appropriate that when dealing with OV to look at how much this phenomenon costs us as a business, as an industry, as a nation. The aforementioned rise in instances should be alarm enough to those of us whose responsibilities includes the productivity and profitability of our enterprises.
Addressing OV will have direct financial impact is various ways:
• Repair costs for any damages – From broken doors, tables, windows to equipment and tools. A hospital patient or a teacher’s pupil going rogue and destroying property is going to require a spend to repair or replace any damage
• Security measures implemented – Be it appointments of security guards, reinforced doors/windows or the installation of a security swipe access or alarm system for example, increased safety does not happen without costs attached
• Staffing costs – Often extra staffing is the knee-jerk reaction to incidents involving OV with the assumption that more staff would likely result in less occurrences. This may or may not be effective, though the added personnel is the most significant immediate cost impact that a business will see. Recruitment replacement costs have obvious impact attached too
• Workers Compensation Premiums – An act of OV is very clearly, a compensable workers compensation claim. It is reasonable to assume that claims that eventuate from acts of OV will be high costed claims due to the dual nature of injuries being physical and psychological. Time lost and medical costs will be calculated into statistical case estimates, that will have an impact on premiums for years
Having established that OV is an important issue with multidisciplinary impact is one thing. Having the tools and resources to address the issue is another. Sitting back and watching others pave the way is not an option we can afford to take. It is incumbent on organisations to equip themselves and their staff with the tools necessary to address this confronting challenge.
Of course I would advocate education and awareness. I am a firm believer that knowledge of a risk is the best way to avoid it. No right-minded Aussie would go for a swim in croc-infested waters. We don’t have a dip in the ocean when the signs saying “box jellyfish season”, and we slow down our cars when the black ice signs start to flash. Perhaps overly simplistic, but some forewarning of dangers is usually successful in increasing people’s awareness of the existence of the risk. Vigilance enhances our reaction times, enables us to foresee and potentially diffuse a situation, or perhaps be at the ready to escalate/call for help. Ignoring OV like an elephant in the emergency room will only lead to disaster and a messy clean up afterwards.
Transparency with staff, and an open dialogue about the dangers of each workplace is necessary. Disability support workers for example are often aware that clients can bite, scratch, etc. Each individual client would normally have a dossier highlighting their particular traits. Having this filed away in an office and not reviewed assists no one. Regular reviews and conversations about the risks involved, and the processes one follows in the event of are essential. There is a reason military recruits train drill after drill after drill. Most adults have an innate skill for turning right, left, and about face. The drilling of military personnel is to ensure that even in the most chaotic, nonsensical of situations, their reactions will be completely instinctive and in line with best practice. This saves lives and makes for an efficient unit. We certainly don’t need to see our staff as troops in battle, but the reinforcement of responses for varied scenarios is a useful tool. Hopefully never having to use it, the fact that staff will believe they are well prepped for such an occurrence will also increase their confidence and overall morale in the workplace.
Documentation, processes, policies and risk mitigation are terms that I use with such regularity I no doubt will have them etched into my gravestone – though they are my catchcries for a reason. Forewarned is forearmed and having the ability to consider the exposure of violence or aggression is as valid in the workplace as is mopping up a spill trip hazard. If workers are to attend clients’ premises alone – has an assessment been undertaken at that location? If the residence is deemed psychically safe – has an assessment been undertaken on the circumstances of the site? For example, if the client is a registered offender known to have perpetrated sexual crimes – would one individual staff member be sent there on their own? What if we are knowledgeable of the fact that the staff member has experienced domestic violence in their private life – should he/she be sent to this particular client without support, or would risk mitigation suggest an alternate approach?
Consultation is often the most productive way to have a comprehensive review of any internal action plans. Engaging with all relevant executives, the (potentially) impacted employees, the safety department, the Human Resources department, external bodies and authorities – allows for a truly catholic understanding of the issue, and application of any strategies developed. Including all aspects of an organisation to identify the risks and compose a detailed policy and initiative against any challenge is, in my opinion, the only way to address this serious issue. It seems the Australian Institute of Criminology (Australian Government) agrees with me. Visit the AIC here
“The most effective policies and strategies for preventing and reducing occupational violence are pre-planned, multifaceted and organisation-wide” – AIC
Whilst I would encourage all organisations to take on board this cause with aplomb and ensure that the exposure to your business is minimalised where possible, it cannot be overcome, nor the phenomenon stopped by individual companies alone. It takes a village, and in this scenario it will requires all parties to step up to the plate.
Our governments must ensure that not only are work health and safety laws in place to protect people from OV through the provision of appropriate support and compensation for those victims; they also need to ensure the deterrents are there as well – and have penalties for people who intentionally seek out to impose violence or aggressive behaviour on others.
Through the methods described above, education of all employees of the risks within their roles, and implementation of policies and procedures to address OV should occur. Provide ample support and resources (EAP, Trauma Debrief, WorkCover, etc.) to all personnel and ensure that it is on the agenda item of relevant toolbox talks, fireside chats, etc.
Take personal responsibility for the wellbeing of not just your delegated charges, but your colleagues, the public and of course yourself. Be aware of your working environment, even more so if it is constantly changing. Know what is expected of you, and how to respond. Know what services and resources you can access and do not shy away from raising concerns or issues to your organisation. Standing by and assuming that OV is an every day part of your job may seem logical, but can also be dangerous.
For further information, you can contact your state’s governing Work Health and Safety body.
Misha Wright – Rodionov
Senior Account Manager