Social care staff face rising violence and abuse
Social care staff are experiencing increasing levels of verbal abuse, harassment and violence, according to figures obtained by Community Care under the Freedom of Information Act.
The average local authority recorded 147 incidents of abuse against social care employees in 2010-11, data from 117 English councils has shown, compared with an average of 132 incidents in 2009-10.
Helga Pile, national officer for social care at Unison, said this was worrying but unsurprising: “It comes in a climate of cuts, more lone working, higher caseloads and rationing of care. That all adds up to more pressure on service users, which may translate into these kinds of incidents.”
A total of 17,218 incidents were recorded by the 117 local authorities. Hertfordshire Council had the highest number with 1,488 cases, while Hammersmith and Fulham and Middlesbrough councils reported just one each.
Colette Wyatt-Lowe, Hertfordshire’s cabinet member for health and social care, said the figures may be due to the county’s high population and lack of outsourcing. “Hertfordshire has a population of 1.2 million people,” she said. “The number of reported incidents of violence or abuse will naturally be higher than in a smaller authority or one which outsources its care provision.”
But the data collected shows only a weak connection between population size and the number of recorded incidents. Northumberland Council, for example, recorded 1,148 incidents of abuse against its social workers, but the council’s website says it has a population of around 312,000.
A spokeswoman for Northumberland said the council defines all behaviour that “produces damaging or hurtful effects, physical or emotional” as a violent incident. This includes abuse by email, damage to property and injuries staff sustained when acting to prevent a service user self-harming or hurting others.
“Our understanding is that some local authorities choose to monitor some of these patterns of behaviour in different ways and may only record those violent incidents in which members of staff have been seriously injured,” she said. “Very few of the incidents recorded in Northumberland have involved any significant injury to staff.”
Unison says a national monitoring system would allow for a more direct and meaningful comparison between local authorities. “There is no consistency at all in what is being recorded,” Pile told Community Care. “We need to see things standardised, as the current situation makes it hard to argue for extra resources to address the problem as the NHS managed to do.”
But the Local Government Association (LGA) opposes such a move. “Harassment and verbal abuse is subjective, so it’s incredibly difficult to come up with a robust measure,” said an LGA spokesperson. “There is a role at national level in looking at how these issues can be mitigated, but ultimately local authorities and their line managers are in the best position to address this.”
Health and safety requirements
At present, employers must report violent incidents to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) if a physical or verbal assault results in death, major injury or absence from work or normal duties for more than three days (although this will rise to seven days on 6 April). In cases of violence in the workplace, employers have a legal duty to investigate incidents, inform relevant regulators and implement improvements to reduce reoccurrence of violent incidents.
Figures for 2010-11 collected by the HSE showed that 30% of all assaults in the workplace happened in the health and social care sector. In social work, 11% of staff injuries causing absence for more than three days were due to assault (260 incidents) while in residential care the figure was 25% (1,038 incidents).
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With experiences of abuse, harassment and violence so commonplace in social work, practitioners must take steps to protect themselves. We have brought together a range of resources designed to help social workers and other social care professionals defuse dangerous situations and better manage risk.Stay safeAggression management trainer Ray Braithwaite offers tips on how to keep yourself safe on visits.
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Unison also produces It’s Not Part of the Job, a detailed guide offering advice on what employers must and should do when it comes to violence at work.
Find out how many incidents of abuse social workers experienced in your area with our free interactive map and spreadsheet showing how each local authority compares.
We’ve pulled together the most important data from our own survey of social workers and the information supplied by local authorities following our Freedom of Information request.
Community Care has teamed up with Unison to encourage more social care workers to speak out against the violence and abuse they face.
Put up a copy of our campaign poster in your workplace, urging social workers to report the incidents they experience rather than suffer in silence. Download the poster here (PDF). (Poster design by Gintare Minelgaite)
We’ve developed a template letter for social care professionals to send to the councillor responsible for social care in their authority. As well as pressing home the key steps that councils can do to help improve the situation, it also allows you to tell them about what you have personally experienced on the job, helping to bring the reality of the problem to their attention. Download the letter here (Word doc).
MPs can help push for national action on this issue, so we’ve created a template letter that will help bring the need for action to their attention. Download the letter here (Word doc).