The risk of violence in social work has long been recognised, although it could be argued that the attention paid to staff care and protection issues has rarely been sufficient to ensure adequate levels of prevention and support. A Home Office research report provides an up-to-date picture of violence in the workplace.1 It is not geared specifically to social work, but it nonetheless provides a great deal of food for thought that is applicable to our profession.
The report, which relates to England and Wales rather than the whole of the UK, is divided into three main parts: the extent of violence at work, the nature of such violence, and its consequences. In terms of the extent of violence, it is noted that 1.7 per cent of working adults were the victims of one or more violent incidents (an estimated 849,000 incidents of violence – 431,000 assaults and 418,000 threats). These figures represent a 35 per cent fall from the peak figures of 1995. It is noted that health and social welfare professionals were at relatively high risk.
In terms of the nature of violence, males were responsible for most incidents (four out of five assaults and 77 per cent of threats), and more than 70 per cent of those responsible were aged under 40. Victims of incidents stated that more than half of the offenders were under the influence of alcohol or drugs (alcohol 31 per cent, drugs 21 per cent). In 61 per cent of cases, the offender was not known to the victim before the incident.
In terms of the consequences, the levels of concern about potential violence varied significantly: 36 per cent of health and social welfare professionals were very or fairly worried about assaults at work, compared with 3 per cent of science and technology professionals, for example. Two-thirds of workers who had face-to-face contact with the public said they had not received any form of training in how to deal with violent or threatening behaviour.
While it is reassuring to learn that the overall number of incidents is significantly lower than the peak that was hit eight years ago, the picture nonetheless remains a worrying one. While training on such matters cannot guarantee that violence and aggression will never take place, high-quality training can play a significant role in preparing staff for the challenges they face by alerting them to the warning signs and teaching them tension defusion techniques, among other things.
But, if less than a third of such staff have had relevant training, it leaves me wondering just how many employing organisations have policies in place that give guidance on how such situations should be handled (and, more importantly, how they should be avoided in the first place where possible). How many organisations take the issue of violence in the workplace seriously enough to have a staff care policy in place which addresses the crucially important issues of critical incident debriefing and the avoidance of possible post-traumatic reactions?
This research is important in raising awareness of the significance of aggression and violence in the workplace and the dangers of not taking such matters seriously.
1 Anna Upson, Violence at Work: Findings from the 2002-3 British Crime Survey, Home Office Research, Development and Statistics Directorate, 2004. It can be downloaded free from www.hse.gov.uk/press/2004/e04013.htm
Neil Thompson is an independent trainer, consultant and author (www.neilthompson.info) . He is author of Communication and Language: A Handbook of Theory and Practice (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).