Kara Ng and Sheena Johnson say work related violence may be more common than we think.
Most of us have experienced a change in our interactions with employees, staff, and workers because of COVID-19. Consequently, it may be difficult for us to adjust to constantly changing rules. This has apparently, sadly, led to a marked increase in work-related violence and aggression (WVA) directed at frontline workers.
We are working in conjunction with Helen Beers at the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the Thomas Ashton Institute to further our understanding of WVA and COVID-19. In a recent workshop and during follow up interviews, we spoke to representatives from many UK organisations, across a variety of sectors including retail and waste management, about the difficulties they face in addressing WVA, the importance of staff reporting incidents, and how to tackle such problems.
What is work-related violence and aggression?
While the International Labour Organisation and many other groups recognise that employees have the right to work without fear of violence, it is an unfortunate reality that many workers are targets of WVA.
The HSE define WVA as incidents in which a person is “abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work”. WVA can include physical, verbal, or psychological behaviours, and can have profoundly negative consequences on workers’ health and quality of life. Workers report heightened anxiety, feeling helpless, chronic fatigue, and increased stress, among many other issues. WVA can also negatively affect those around targets, such as witnesses or targets’ family and friends.
In recent years, reports suggest that WVA incidents have remained broadly consistent without clear trends. In the Crime Survey for England and Wales leading up to March 2020 (prior to the first COVID lockdown), 1.4% of working adults were estimated to have been targets of at least one violent workplace incident.
However, initial findings from surveys conducted since the pandemic indicate a sharp increase of WVA. A recent USDAW survey of 2,700 retail workers reported that nine in 10 respondents were verbally abused, while 60% reported being physically threatened, and a further 9% reported actually being physically assaulted.
Our workshop’s qualitative (interview-based) responses echo the emerging quantitative, numerical findings. Respondents shared stories of how workers were subjected to increased abuse, such as retail staff having shopping thrown at them or being the targets of threatening behaviour.
COVID-19 has also meant a change in types of abuse, as workers also reported being spat on by the public. Respondents also noted that COVID-19 had accelerated WVA trends that were emerging in previous years, such as lone or remote workers being more vulnerable targets.
What can be done?
Our research suggests that WVA may occur more often than we think, as workers often do not report incidents when they happen. This can be for a number of reasons but, most notably, many workers feel that WVA is ‘just part of the job’ and have normalised such behaviours or believe that nothing will come out of their reporting. Unfortunately, this means employers may not know the severity of WVA in their organisation and the impact it is having on their employees.
Many workshop respondents shared stories of how they were working in their organisations to address WVA. For example, in the retail and waste management sectors, employers have taken steps to support staff who wish to report incidents, engage with staff, and are implementing preventative mechanisms to reduce WVA in the first place.
Despite these promising steps there is still a long way to go in preventing and addressing WVA in the UK. Employers should provide clear WVA policies that detail what their responsibilities are to their workforce, which should be communicated clearly with staff. Employers should also conduct risk assessments to identify hazards, identify at-risk employees, evaluate risks, and take action to ensure any potential risk of WVA is eliminated or controlled.
*Helen Beers and Sheena Johnson co-lead a research theme on social change and inequalities within the Thomas Ashton Institute and are soon launching a network to facilitate collaboration and information sharing in relation to work-related violence and aggression. If you would like to find out more, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with your name, job title, contact details and the name of your organisation and sector you work in.
*This blog post summarises key points from a previously published article in the Safety and Health Practitioner by Helen Beers and Sheena Johnson.