Self defence is not the issue

Tim Cooke, of conflict management consultants Maybo, argues that social workers should focus on risk assessment rather than self-defence.

I welcome the debate at about whether social workers should be trained in self-defence. It is important that vital issues such as the safety of staff and service users should be discussed. However, my concern relates to the language in which the debate is constructed: I believe it is unhelpful to frame the issues in terms of self-defence. Instead I would suggest that we consider what skills are needed by social workers in order for them to be able to carry out their work safely.

The language of self-defence focuses on what social workers can do when things begin to go wrong. However, the language of risk assessment and risk reduction reminds us that there are many things that can be done to reduce risk before it happens in front of us. The language of primary, secondary and tertiary risk control is very helpful here:

Primary risk 

Primary risk control refers to actions that can be taken to prevent conflict situations arising, or to reduce their likely frequency and impact. In social care settings, this will involve establishing policies and safe systems of work. For example, what information is available to staff about the situations that they face and the service users they work with? How are visits and appointments made? When do staff decide whether to make joint visits? How is information about risky behaviour reported and recorded? Action at this level is likely to be the best and most efficient way to help social workers “defend themselves”.

Secondary risk

Secondary risk control involves action to prevent conflict escalating into violence. This typically involves the use of interpersonal skills and defusing and calming strategies. These skills need to be learned and practised in situations that reflect real situations. This does not require subjecting them to simulated assaults, but does involve staff having an opportunity to reflect on how they would behave in situations that they have or might actually face.

Social workers are highly skilled in effective communication skills and can benefit further from being helped to make effective dynamic risk assessments. Such assessments, made in the face of a real situation, can help them determine whether to continue with their attempts to defuse, or whether it is better to withdraw.

“Self-defence” training should include this vital aspect of dynamic risk assessment and effective communication, so that social workers are not put in a position where they need to defend themselves physically.

Tertiary risk 

Tertiary risk control involves action taken at the point of potential violence, and afterwards. Like it or not, we know that social workers are subjected to violence, as the LGA survey illustrates. In such situations, they need to know how to disengage themselves successfully; safe and effective disengagement is a million miles away from “fighting” the assailant.

Effective physical intervention skills do not have to be complicated but can instead be built from simple principles and natural responses. The challenge of skill retention is greatly simplified by using a training needs analysis to ensure that staff only learn such skills as they are likely to need.  These skills can be kept valid through annual refresher training.

And yet tertiary risk control is not just about what to do at the point of potential violence. It also includes effective reporting and recording, so that appropriate lessons can be learned and so that similar situations can be prevented in the future. And effective tertiary risk control includes support for staff and service users following such incidents.

 The key aspect here is that keeping staff and service users safe is about effective action at all three stages of primary, secondary and tertiary risk control. Our duty of care to staff and service users requires us to do what we can to keep them safe. This is not about teaching staff self-defence skills. Instead, it is about putting in place risk assessment and reduction measures that are linked to the situations that staff really face.

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