About Workplace Violence


When talking about workplace violence, we often think about an employee going off his/her rocker and attacking other employees. The media has given us a false impression of what workplace violence is and what can be done about it.  

There are many hazards in every work environment.  Violence does not have to be one of those hazards. Such violence may cause physical and psychological harm and may result in permanent disability and even death. 

The impact on employees who suffer trauma at work can be a significant occupational safety and health problem at workplaces. The employer's interest in examining and managing this problem is related to the direct and indirect cost of ignoring it.  The National Institutes for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has declared workplace homicide a "significant" public health problem.  Homicide is now the third leading cause of workplace death, and the leading cause of workplace death for womenOnly 20% of workplace violence is perpetrated by co-workers.  Employees are twice as likely to be attacked by customers as by co-workers or strangers.

What is workplace violence?

Workplace violence is an action or incident that physically or psychologically harms another person. It includes situations where employees and other people are threatened, attacked or physically assaulted at work.

Non-physical violence, such as verbal abuse, intimidation and threatening behavior, may also significantly affect a person's health and well being. Threats may be perceived or real and there does not have to be physical injury for the violence to be a workplace hazard.  Employees may be affected by workplace violence, even if they are not directly involved.

Reasons for  violent outburst may not be easily identifiable.  However, some common factors may apply in a workplace.  Violence, abuse, and threats at work may occur for a number of reasons such as:

  • criminal activity

  • mental instability

  • the influence of alcohol or other drugs

  • being forced to wait, causing irritation and frustration

  • feeling aggrieved - a sense of being treated unfairly, whether real or imagined

  • a build up of feelings of rage or anger

  • feelings of loss of control

  • uncomfortable physical conditions

  • the general culture of the workplace and the acceptance of violent behavior, such as, intimidation, harassment, bullying or the use of strong abusive language

  • prejudice because of cultural, religious, political, gender bias or bias against minority groups 

The college environment can add several more reasons such as poor grades, frustration with completing courses, or family and domestic problems at home.

Violence may come from outside or inside the workplace. It may be from members of the public, customers, clients, patients or students, or from supervisors, managers or other employees.

Most workplace assaults, resulting in injuries or time lost from work, are in community service organizations such as hospitals, schools and colleges, and prisons. 

Violent incidents can disrupt work to the extent that action has to be taken to restore order and confidence. Work may stop altogether.  Reactions to workplace violence can continue for a long time after the incident. 

There can be considerable direct and indirect costs for the organization. Productivity can be affected by reduced morale, impaired performance, absenteeism, increased sick leave, and a high staff turnover. 

The individual reactions will vary according to the nature of the incident and the extent to which the person is directly or indirectly involved. It is likely though, that employees affected by workplace violence will experience some common reactions, such as:

  • immediate body changes that may be associated with distress, such as changes to the heart rate and breathing rate, muscle tension and nausea or vomiting

  • feelings of anger, protest and frustration

  • feelings of being out of control

  • feelings of anxiety and shock

  • feelings of guilt and embarrassment, especially if they failed to respond appropriately

  • irritability and loss of concentration

  • sleeplessness and nightmares for some time after the event

  • "reliving" the event

  • fear of returning to work.

Employees may not feel secure at their workplace. They may feel threatened and lose trust in their clients or customers. Returning to the scene of the violent incident may bring back memories of the distress that occurred at the time and some employees may be overwhelmed by a fear of similar events happening in the future. It is important the employees "feel safe" as well as "be safe" so as to prevent an adverse response to an incident where no threat actually exists.

What to do

While you cannot prevent workplace violence, you can do a lot to reduce the chances of it happening to you.  The biggest role you can play is in redefining your workplace culture and environment.  Following are some key steps in accomplishing this redefinition:

Opening the right doors

  • Define the organization's values - how do and will employees treat each other
  • Identify our "hot buttons"
  • Establish well defined policies on harassment, intimidation and violence
  • Become a role model for workplace behavior
  • Defuse hostile situations.  Define when and were to draw the line in workplace behavior
  • Utilize alternative dispute resolutions options

Defuse hostility through service

  • Learn the differences between a friendly and hostile customer
  • Recognize ours and the customer's "hot buttons"
  • Cope with diversity factors that are in conflict with customers
  • Defuse hostile customer service situations
  • Learn when and where to get help

Control violence through learning

  • Improve your verbal intervention skills
  • Apply risk reduction techniques when confronted by weapons
  • Control outbreaks of violence
  • Know how to document any workplace incident
  • Become good at giving bad news
  • Apply crisis prevention techniques
  • Set effective limits

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