Protection policy

to mental health workers Lance Carver and Mike Lehane lone worker policies do
not enjoy universal acclaim among the very people they are designed to protect.

The risks
posed to workers in the social care field have been highlighted in recent years
by a number of attacks and deaths. The murder of Jenny Morrison, the social
worker who was stabbed to death by a mental health client in 1998, gave us all
cause for concern, as did the deaths of Jonathan Newby, Katie Sullivan, Isabel
Schwarz and Norma Morris, Frances Betteridge and Audrey Johnson in previous
years. In 1999 Community Care 
launched its “No Fear” campaign in a bid to improve the safety of people
working in this field, a move which the government followed with a task force
on violence which reported in early 2001.1 It is widely felt that
people are at far greater risk when working alone, so many agencies have
developed policies to reduce the risks to staff.

concentrated our research on community mental health teams in England and
Wales. Examination of lone worker policies across six health trusts reveals a
worrying lack of knowledge among health and social services staff of the
content and procedures of these important documents. Of 40 staff questioned all
were aware of the existence of the lone worker policy within their workplace
but none of them could locate the document in question. The issue of lone
worker policies, however, does appear to cause concern among staff. The feeling
is often that such policies have a hidden agenda. Many of the 40 staff
questioned felt that the policy’s real purpose was to allow senior staff to
monitor their movements and workload.

In all the
areas in question the trust or local authority provided mobile phones for staff
who work alone. This was universally seen as a positive benefit.

All of the
team bases kept a central register of staff details. This information included
home telephone numbers, addresses and car details. Fifteen respondents raised
concerns about their home details being available; they felt that this
information was abused on a regular basis. It had been used to contact them at
home on days off to discuss what they saw as non-urgent work-related matters.
Most then did not feel happy about raising their concerns for fear of being
viewed as unco-operative by colleagues.

All areas
had a staff logbook or board, used to note their visits. These should provide a
rough guide to where any staff member is at any given time but their use varied
enormously. Some 25 respondents admitted that they never filled them in because
they felt they were a waste of time. They were concerned that the information
was not used for staff safety but used by colleagues and management to compare
work schedules. The overwhelming feeling was that they are a burden to complete
and thus not useful.

The other
seemingly standard system involves reporting off duty at the end of the day.
Each area had a designated person to contact at the end of each shift. This
“safety person” role was usually done on a rotational basis among all the staff
in the team. Our research suggests most staff report direct to the person who
is responsible but others feel it is sufficient to report to whoever answers
the phone at the workplace, leaving to them the responsibility to inform the
safety person that they have finished work. If messages are not passed on there
may be a false alarm – a situation likely to undermine the credibility of the
lone worker policy.

Our overall
impression was that workers have a generally negative view of the lone worker
policy, the more so the longer they have been in the job. Those with 10 years
or more experience felt that they knew their clients and work areas well and
had less time for lone worker policies. Two very new workers felt reassured by
their policies and used them religiously.

It should
be of great concern that there are negative attitudes to these policies as it
is dangerous to ignore them. Most teams told us that compliance with lone
worker policies was more stringent following an incident, which would show that
workers only worry about their safety when their vulnerability has been
recently demonstrated.

So what do
staff want, and what can managers do that would make staff feel more positive
about lone worker policies? Those questioned felt that policies which were
tailor-made to the individual needs of each team rather than a
one-size-fits-all approach was the solution.

The policy
should be designed by the whole team and work across all disciplines within the
team. All staff involved are professionals and like to feel that they are viewed
as such by their peers. The view was that as a team they should be trusted to
take care of their own safety needs.

Carver is an approved social worker and Mike Lehane is a community psychiatric


1 National Task Force on Violence
Against Social Workers, A Safer Place, Department of Health, 2000


July and December 1999 ran articles each week on the issues surrounding
violence against social workers




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