For those of us fortunate enough to work in healthy workplaces, the idea of workplace violence and aggression can seem very distant. Unfortunately, for thousands of people, it's very real. Assaults and threats can come from members of the public, service users and fellow workers.
In 2017/18 alone, 374,000 workers in the UK suffered workplace violence. 41% of these cases resulted in injuries, with bruising and black eyes being the most common outcome. In the most extreme cases, such as the tragic murder of the police officer PC Andrew Harper, the results have been fatal.
Verbal threats were the most common kind of workplace attack. Figures relating to workplace violence in the UK have stayed broadly stable for several years.
Some professions are more at risk of workplace violence and aggression than others. Retail workers, for example, are often vulnerable to unacceptable treatment. Social work, law enforcement, security and healthcare are other areas that might present more challenging situations than most professions.
Even outside of these higher risk areas, it's important for employers not to assume violent or aggressive situations can never arise. Training employees to handle these events is vital, as is protecting their personal safety. Staff must be supported at all times and empowered to make choices that keep them safe. If they feel that they or their co-workers are at risk, their managers should take every step necessary to make sure they are taken out of harm's way. They should never be made to feel like they can't safely raise concerns.
Although jobs involving direct contact with the public are high risk, no working environment is safe. Many instances of workplace violence and aggression occur between colleagues.
A good starting point for employers is to implement a zero-tolerance approach to bullying and incivility. Left unchecked, these situations can escalate. They do huge damage to employees and organisations alone, and the fact they are often a precursor to violence is just another reason for all good companies to come down hard on all bullying incidents.
It's important to be aware of when employees are most at risk of aggression or violence. Perhaps the risk is greater when they deliver information to service users or when the workplace is particularly busy with clients. One of the best ways to identify triggers and deal with them is to talk to the workers themselves, who know the demands of their job much better than anyone else.
In lots of cases, extra control measures can stop violence and aggression before they begin.
With shift work, making sure people are never alone is ideal. In some cases, this might mean taking on additional security staff or altering shift patterns. Making physical alterations such as a security screen can at least protect staff from physical attacks – banks and, sometimes, shops often use this option. Visible CCTV can act as a deterrent to anyone who would be tempted to attack a staff member.
Even with all these controls in place, it is possible violence will still occur. Should that happen, employers should be prepared to provide all the support the victim needs, including time off, access to any additional healthcare they need (such as counselling), and extra help with their return to the workplace. People will feel substantially safer if they see extra measures have been taken to stop the situation happening again and will be more likely to stay in their job.
No workplace violence or aggression is acceptable. Employers and employees can work in partnership to identify potential triggers or danger areas and prevent as many of these situations from happening as possible.