Managing workplace violence

Managing workplace violence

15:06 07 June in Uncategorized

This is part 1 of a 2-part article in which I’d like to speak about managing violence in the workplace. The reason I wanted to do it in 2 parts is because managing assaults in the workplace is generally approached from 2 different areas; the employee and the employer point of view.


In the first part of this article I want to look at managing a workplace assault from an employee’s point of view and in the next part I will discuss it from an employer’s perspective.


Defining workplace violence

One of the unfortunate realities of working on the front line and dealing with the public is that from time to time employees deal with aggression, abuse, threats and sometimes even physical violence. Despite their own and their employer’s best efforts with policies, procedures, risk assessments, equipment and training it still occurs.

The term workplace violence itself is one that is often mistaken and misunderstood. The Health and Safety Authority state;

“Workplace violence occurs where people, in the course of their employment, are aggressively verbally abused, threatened or physically assaulted.”

Most people assume that workplace violence is simply the physical assault. In fact, the non-physical abuse and aggression can often have more profound and long lasting effects on employees than the physical injuries suffered in an assault.


Effects of workplace violence

Thinking back on your own role. How many times have you been screamed at aggressively, abused verbally or felt physically threatened? I would guess it’s a lot more times than you have been punched or kicked.

Now think of how it made you feel at the time. Degraded, angry, scared? All very natural responses in the heat of the moment. But the really damaging effects of workplace violence often come afterwards. When the aggressor is long gone, the adrenaline rush has passed and we are sitting down alone.

In conflict management terms this is known as the recovery phase and is often the hardest phase of a conflict to manage. People often begin to feel guilty, ashamed that they allowed the person to treat them that way or second guessing their decision making during the incident. These are all very common feelings and emotions during the recovery phase.

Just as difficult as the emotional effects are the physical effects of the incidents. Your hands are shaking; your knees feel weak or maybe you feel a little nausea. These are all very natural responses to adrenaline leaving the body but can make the average person feel quite terrible when it happens. The physical effects can last a couple of hours after an event.

However sometimes the most damaging part of the recovery phase is the post-event dip. This is the stage where the adrenaline has left the body and you are left feeling stiff and sore, exhausted and generally low. This can happen for a few days afterwards. Long term a loss of confidence or fear of similar situations can occur leaving some people unable to work for long periods of time. These effects can be life altering for people all stemming from incidents of violence in the workplace.




Managing the effects

So how do we as individuals manage these effects? You will notice I say manage and not prevent because these are all perfectly natural human responses which happen to every one of us from time to time. The first step I believe is ownership. Taking ownership of the issue and not seeking to blame others. Often I hear excuses like; the company should have protected me, or my colleagues should have done something. While these statements may have merit from a safety, legal or procedural point of view they do nothing to help the individual recover from the event. No individual can abdicate responsibility for their own safety to others. You as a person who has been involved in a very stressful incident need to accept that it has happened and that you will have these natural responses and that you are going to manage them and learn from your experience.

That brings me to the next point which is learning from the experience. Now that this has happened what can we take from it that can prevent it happening again or help us to deal with a similar situation. This requires a great deal of detachment and self-awareness. Being able to emotionally detach from an incident afterwards and look at it from a distance can give us a great perspective from which to learn from it. We are all very capable after a stressful incident to look at the negatives of what happened but in every incident there are also many positives to be taken. You got home safely so you must have done something correctly. Take a step back and look at your actions, your emotions, how you responded and what you did well as what you can improve if a similar situation occurs. Also look at the other person and how they reacted to various things that you said or did. What messages are you communicating to others in stressful situations? This type of self-awareness exercise can often help you to manage the negative effects on workplace violence as well as help build confidence if you find yourself in a similar situation again.

The final point I will make in dealing with the negative effects of workplace violence is to Relax. Easy for me to say right? You can only control the controllable elements of your life. You can’t control how other people act, how your colleagues behave or your employer’s policies. You can however control your part in these. Once you realise and accept this it is often easier to manage the stress of workplace violence. You cannot control others or your environment just as you can’t abdicate your safety to others or your work environment. You do have control over how you act, how you feel and how you behave. At the end of the day your job is simply that; a job. It doesn’t define you and allowing things that happen in the course of your work (including violence) to affect your overall life is not a good place to be in.

So in closing if you have been in the unfortunate position of being abused, threatened or assaulted at work I really feel for you. It is not a pleasant experience and it can have long lasting and life changing effects if you allow it to.  Your profession and your experience of workplace violence does not define you unless you allow it to. The incident(s) you have been involved in have happened and you got through them safely so Well Done. Learn from it, improve and move on to be a better professional and a better person from the experience.

If you would like to speak to us about managing workplace violence in your workplace contact us today on 091-534918.

Tony O'Brien