Covid-19 prompts action on violence in the workplace

women in mask

As employees get ready to return to work after Covid-19 restriction ease, do they feel safe from harm? Data shows an alarming trend for violence and aggression at work. Find out how employers and staff can put a stop to this workplace threat.

The conversation around violence, bullying and metal wellbeing in the workplace has been increasing in recent years, with many initiatives and campaigns being put in place to keep workers safe.

But, like many other issues within society over the past year, the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the subject further, bringing the matter of violence and aggression at work into sharp focus after reports and studies have revealed that more staff members have suffered verbal abuse, threats of violence and actual assaults throughout the global health crisis.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) identify work-related violence and harassment as ‘a range of unacceptable behaviours, practices or threats… [that] result in physical, psychological, sexual or economic harm’.

Here we take a look at the issue of violence in the workplace, who is affected and what both employers and staff members can do to keep workers safe from harm.

Violence at work: A substantial problem

According to the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) most recent data on violence in the workplace, which was gathered up to March 2020 and before the pandemic hit, 688,000 incidents of violence took place at work in the UK – 389,000 of which were threats and 299,000 were assaults – comparable to 739,000 incidents the year before.

What is apparent in these figures is that there is very little variation in numbers year-on-year and no clear trend to speak of. That said, the issue is clear – that something more must be done in order to keep staff members safer while they’re in their place of work.

Retail trade union Usdaw (Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers) believes that there is still more abuse of shopworkers that goes unreported and has petitioned the Government to realise the scale of the problem. The organisation says it wants leaders to free over three million shopworkers from a ‘life sentence’ of violence, abuse and anti-social behaviour by amending a crime bill that would provide frontline workers with greater protection.

data on incidents of violence in the workplace

graph showing the types of injury as a result of violence in the workplace

Violence in the workplace after the Covid-19 outbreak

Usdaw also says that abuse of shopworkers doubled within the first month of the pandemic, and this trend went on to continue throughout the year. The union conducted a survey of 2,700 staff members and results showed that 88% of workers had experienced verbal abuse, 60% had been threatened by a customer and 9% had been assaulted.

Retailer Co-op also conducted its own research, which showed that one in five customers had admitted to being aggressive or abusive to a shop worker over the course of eight months during the pandemic, despite the fact that 90 % of Brits believed retail workers had provided an essential service during the Covid-19 outbreak.

The ILO also outlines how Covid-19 has exacerbated the problem in the world of work with regards to violence and harassment:

“During a health crisis, violence and harassment (both physical and psychological) can rise, in addition to an increase in social stigma and discrimination.

The higher mortality rate associated with epidemics, the distress couple with uncertainty about symptoms, the unavailability of test kits and the absence of vaccines and treatments, can lead to acts of violence against healthcare professionals and others who directly care for patients and their families.

Restrictive measures against citizens’ mobility, together with the shortage of necessary items, can result in backlash against staff assigned to enforce these measures or staff involved in the sale and transport of essential goods.”

Man with covid mask and gloves showing stop to violence in the workplace

Who is affected by violence in the workplace?

The HSE’s pre-pandemic report showed, unsurprisingly, that the professions with the highest number of workplace violence was the protective services, followed by the caring services.

Since Covid-19 came along, what is apparent is how frontline workers across the board have been put at greater risk. According to World Health Organisation (WHO), those most likely to be subject to violence and aggression are personnel in the healthcare sector, all public facing staff, police and security workers.

The impact on people, business and society

The definition of work-related violence, according to the HSE, is: “Any incident in which a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work.”

The consequences of such incidents are far reaching. For the victims, this involves suffering harm, injury and pain and any lasting physical effects, as well as the impact on overall wellbeing, from self-esteem to stress, post-traumatic stress disorder and the potential for loss of income.

For businesses, the effects can be negative, from problems recruiting staff to low morale, resulting in a lower performing business and overall reputation and a greater need for quality first aid training.

Society as whole is also impacted, with a more stressed and anxious workforce struggling with greater mental health challenges. The Breathe Culture Economy Report 2021 revealed that a toxic workplace culture is costing the UK economy £20.2 billion a year, and almost a third (27%) of workers quit their jobs in the past year due to a negative company culture.

CE Safety’s Gary Ellis said: “Unfortunately these worrying stories about violence against frontline workers, especially in the wake of Covid-19, have become normalised and almost accepted as part of the job. But, as we’ve learnt, the impact on the wellbeing of our staff, on our businesses and society as a whole is far reaching and unacceptable.

“As offices and workplaces begin to open up when restrictions are lifted, there are changes we all need to make to ensure our employees are not going back into this kind of culture as the norm. While society is beginning to shift its overall attitude, employers must do all they can to protect their workers in the meantime.

“Put those risk assessments in place, do the necessary training, alter your policies to make them robust and fit for purpose. This is how people spend their lives and we are responsible for putting their welfare at the forefront of working practices.”

Initiatives in place

Pre-pandemic, Co-op began its Safer Colleagues, Safer Communities campaign, which involved a number of operational changes and lobbying for change. Retail Chief Executive Jo Whitfield said: “Nothing is more important than protecting our colleagues now and in the future.”

In 2019 the Government also launched its Safer Workplaces campaign to promote safer workplaces for security staff and to encourage them to report incidents of violence against them.

Action from employers: How to keep your workers safe

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and Management of Health and Safety Work Regulations 1999, employers have a legal duty for taking action in particular circumstances for the welfare of their staff.

But what more can be done in light of this concerning new data when it comes to cultural and procedural shifts, and preventing work-related violence and aggression?

  • Risk management

Foster greater understanding at management level about what factors could lead to potential situations. Put effort into risk assessments and effective control measures in place. Are there triggers? Local factors? Does the workplace culture enhance the risk? Get a clear picture.

  • Create better support systems

Make sure you are giving your staff a safe place to be heard if something isn’t right. Review your training for conflict management and resolution techniques. Outline who is responsible for certain areas and make it clear who is accountable. Effective communication is vital. Listen and show respect, and make sure your staff do too. Address complaints quickly and calmly.

  • Fit-for-purpose policies

Robust practical policies which detail where everyone stands are key to ensuring a functioning, competent and harmonious workforce. Expectations and boundaries that are implemented consistently help to keep conflict to a minimum. Within this, always keep on top of important admin, such as DBS and criminal record checks.

  • Take Covid-19 into consideration

If your business and operating systems have changed, it will be time to revisit your working practices in order to ensure everyone is kept safe and happy. Even if everyone is working from home for the foreseeable future.

  • Reporting incidents

Ensure your employees are up-to-date on procedures and your whistleblowing policy. Your staff should be made to feel comfortable reporting safety concerns, poor practices, unsafe behaviour or situations where they feel uncomfortable or threatened.

Advice for staff: What to do if you’re a victim of violence in the workplace

If you find yourself in a position where violence or aggression has occurred at work, there are things you can do to keep yourself safe. The most vital thing is do not accept it and it’s never OK.

  • Report it

Always report any incident to management and give them a chance to resolve it and ensure you are safe. Your employer has a duty of care for your welfare while at work and should have the right procedures in place to help. If you don’t feel comfortable formally reporting any grievances, try an informal resolution with a manager or senior member of staff first.

  • Make notes

If something is recurring in the workplace that you are uncomfortable with, make notes of all incidents. Take any evidence to your HR or union representative. If a meeting is called, ensure you have your notes and a representative with you.

  • Get official advice

If you are in a situation where your employers cannot or will not help, take the matter to ACAS or Citizens Advice for impartial professional advice.

  • Don’t suffer in silence

You’re not alone in your situation. While it might be difficult to speak up, living with the problem will lead to more suffering. Get help.

Useful link for employers and staff: The CIPD guide for returning to the workplace after Covid-19 restrictions.