By Ray Braithwaite, former social worker and trainer
After being assaulted myself, I have spent the last 25 years providing training for front line staff in dealing with aggression, violence and stress.
During this time, I have been pleased to see major changes in the way some organisations safeguard their staff. However, a survey carried out in September 2014 by Community Care found that nine out of 10 social workers felt at personal risk at least some of the time. And five in 10 “often” felt unsafe.
‘Deplorable’ lack of action
The survey also found that in about 70% of the situations reported to the employer, no action was taken. This is deplorable. It is about time the profession, the employers and the government took this issue seriously.
When I ask training course participants to identify the impact that facing hostile behaviour has upon them, the same words and phrases come up again and again:
These feelings are all known to be elements that contribute to burnout. Commenting on that survey, Unison’s national officer for social care said, in addition to the shocking level of physical assaults, “You also can’t underestimate the effect on morale, well-being and staff retention of the near universal exposure to verbal assaults on a daily basis.” These factors influence sickness levels, staff turnover and the quality of decision-making.
The following examples are typical of those experienced by workers in training sessions I ran last year:
verbal abuse (almost daily) … threats … being followed … held in a room … knife waved in my faced … bitten … punched … spat at … prodded with a finger … shouted and screamed at … inappropriate sexualised behaviour
One group of 12 staff identified 54 incidents – only three of which were recorded on the organisations’ official documentation. This follows a national trend of under-recording abuse and violence against social workers first identified by the Institute of Criminology in 1986!
“If I filled in an incident sheet every time I was sworn at…”
And yet I totally understand what prevents staff from taking a proactive stance in asserting their right to feel and be safe at work, particularly when it comes to reporting and recording incidents. These arguments are common:
- It’s a part of the job
- I don’t know what I should be recording
- If I filled in an incident sheet every time I was sworn at, I’d be doing nothing else all day
- I don’t want to get the client into trouble
- People have a right to be angry
- I’d probably do the same if you took my child from me
- What good will it do?
- It would be seen as a sign of weakness – that I can’t cope.
However, as a way of evidencing the level of hostility being experienced and the amount of stress staff are under, recording is crucial. Recording also places the organisation under an obligation – a duty to care, to take “reasonably practicable” measures to help eliminate or reduce risk and stress.
The “duty to care” is usually held by all line managers and, under Health and Safety legislation, if staff are harmed by a manager’s failure to act upon a known risk or a risk they “ought to have known about”, they may be deemed culpable and could be fined or imprisoned. I wonder how many incidents you have experienced and how many you officially recorded?
You are valuable and looking after yourself is important. In the light of this consider:
- What is your attitude towards abusive language and behaviour from your service users?
- Are you desensitised towards abusive behaviour?
- How would you describe your workplace culture regarding hostility from service users?
- Does your team inadvertently condone violence and aggression by not recording or reporting it?
Your organisation has an obligation to provide you with safe work environments, systems and procedures and this includes safety from the stress generated by facing ongoing, difficult or even dangerous situations. This may involve:
- Educating your manager – some have no idea of their obligation to safeguard staff
- Evidencing levels of hostility via your official incident report form (anecdotal information is not evidence)
- Requesting a risk assessment and risk reduction measures based upon the evidence and upon feelings of unease or vulnerability
- Having regular team discussions about the impacts of facing hostility in order to share best practice strategies.
Don’t accept the premise ‘we don’t have the funds’ to safeguard staff
The argument: “we don’t have enough resources/we don’t have the funding” is simply not acceptable. Managers are legally required to carry out a risk assessment and identify risk reduction measures to reduce violence and stress. I say to line managers: do your best to reduce the risk but if you cannot, because you do not have access to the funds or resource required, put it in writing to your own manager saying what you have done and what you think is required and ask them for a solution.
In this way culpability is passed up into the organisation – to local councillors and ultimately politicians where necessary.
The vast majority of organisations have clear policies on what staff should record and report, usually based on the HSE definition for violence which includes verbal abuse or threats as well as physical attacks. I believe passionately that if we had recorded more accurately over the years, our resources would be at a greater level than they currently are.
In turn, this would mean organisations balance staff care priorities equally alongside service provision. Because we have to ask ourselves: how can we be effective advocates for our service users if we withhold crucial information that will impact on policy making?
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