Spotlight on: violence in the workplace

Last month’s Royal College of Nursing staff survey was disturbing reading. Around 40% of nurses have suffered abuse and threats from patients, it revealed, while 15% of NHS staff have been harassed by colleagues.

Violence in the workplace is a huge problem for health workers and those in other sectors working directly with the public. Police, social workers, retail workers and bar staff, to name but a few, also face a daily risk of dealing with the unpredictable and often irate Joe Public.

And the latest figures from the Home Office reveal that the number of incidents of violence experienced by workers in England and Wales was 655,000 in 2004-05.

Health warning

Both physical and verbal attacks are damaging to health. Even if employees are not physically harmed, it can cause anxiety and stress. In high-risk sectors this can often lead to low staff morale and high staff turnover.

Dianah Worman, adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, says that these risks present some important issues that have to be addressed by HR. “Employees need training, or a policy should be introduced to show staff how they should defend themselves. People have to be able to work without the fear of intimidation,” she says.

Communication is key

However, Alex O’Grady, executive officer at the Healthcare People Management Association, says that the main challenge for HR is communicating policies to staff. “HR needs to ensure there is a zero tolerance policy to violence, and that all employees understand it. Staff should know that they do not have to tolerate aggressive behaviour and that they will be supported by their employer,” she says.

If you don’t provide support and training for employees who have to deal with the public, you may be failing to fulfil a common duty of care. Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, employers have a duty of care to provide a safe place and system of work for all staff.

Reducing risks

As well as training staff on how to behave if they are faced with a violent situation, HR should also introduce other safeguards.
“HR should look at the physical environment and think of practical ways to reduce the risk of staff being harmed,” says Worman.

If employers do not provide adequate protection, staff could exercise their statutory right to refuse to work in ‘dangerous situations’.

Judith Watson, head of employment at law firm Cobbetts, says this has implications for employers as the Employment Rights Act 1996 outlines that an employee cannot be dismissed, selected for redundancy or subjected to any detrimental action for taking certain types of action on health and safety grounds.

Having the right measures in place makes sense. It not only protects the workforce, it protects employers too by helping to avoid potential claims for negligence, personal injury and stress.

What HR can do



  • Carry out a risk assessment to establish whether staff are at risk of violence

  • Put appropriate measures in place to make the physical environment safe

  • Provide training for staff so they can defend themselves in a violent situation

  • Create a clear policy on violence and communicate it to all staff

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