Violence at work: the new normal?

Violence against workers is rightly a hot topic again due to COVID-19. We are understandably shocked by the images of supermarket staff being assaulted over toilet paper, and we applaud the newly introduced $5000 fines for spitting at workers.

But is supporting workers the best way to solve the problem, or would we be better off understanding and supporting perpetrators instead?

We have been researching violence specifically against healthcare workers for some time. Although everyone acknowledges that it is a problem and can have severe consequences for workers, the reality is that violence has become an everyday danger; the new normal.

Every time there is a serious incident, such as when a healthcare worker is killed or seriously injured, there is a lot of media attention, a revolt by colleagues, and a knee-jerk reaction from politicians. The knee-jerk reaction is often in the form of a bag of money: more self-defence training, body cameras, zero-tolerance approach, or some other one-size-fits-all solution. There is no evidence that these solutions reduce violence.

If you ask the workers, it is not only the serious incidents that are of concern; it is their everyday experiences – the name calling or being spat at – that is wearing them down. For women, in particular, violence of a sexual nature is an added burden.

These everyday experiences seem hardest to tackle. Because, what can you really do? Arrest someone who spits? Fine someone who calls you a name? Throw a groper in prison? The COVID-19-related $5000 fine for spitting at front line workers is based on a very serious health risk, not on an everyday ‘nuisance’.

Most solutions focus on supporting workers to manage violence. Our research suggests that a better way of preventing and minimizing violence is to change the focus from the worker to the perpetrators of violence.

In our view, it is time that we acknowledge that violence against workers is a societal and public health issue, and not a problem of the individual worker. We need to understand who is perpetrating it, and why.

To tackle violence, we all need to acknowledge that we are part of the problem – and commit to solving it. Government, employers, unions, professional colleges, researchers and, of course, we as consumers and patients.

Originally published in the Australian Community Media.