Workplace violence

23 November 2017

Queensland hospital staff are exposed to serious physical and psychological risks, with more than 3,000 healthcare workers physically assaulted on the job every year. The frequency of violent incidents are increasing, and many more incidents are not reported.

Nurses are at the front line of this violence in hospitals, particularly those working in emergency departments which have the highest incidence of violence in health care. In 2014-15, 66% of the 5,030 reported incidents in Queensland were from the nursing profession. Nearly 10 per cent of nurses subjected to some type of violence in their careers, to the point where this has become an expected and even almost accepted part of their job. Worldwide, nurses are more likely to be attacked at work than prison guards and police officers.

Violence covers a range of behaviours, from verbal abuse and threats through to physical violence. Verbal abuse, especially swearing, is the most common type of violence. Physical violence often occurs at the same time as verbal abuse and can include the use of weapons on hand – such as syringes, scalpels, scissors and furniture. The impact of patient-related violence on nurses is far-reaching. Verbal abuse can cause significant psychological trauma and stress to nurses, even if no physical injury has occurred. This can include symptoms of depression, PTSD, drug and alcohol abuse and even chronic pain. Physical injuries nurses sustain range from minor scratches and bruises, through to far more serious injuries.

Exposure to patient-related violence can also affect the way nurses interact with patients. Nurses are naturally nurturing people, but abuse can result in feelings of less empathy, poor morale and quality of care can suffer. Unsurprisingly there’s a link between violence experienced by nurses and subsequent adverse events in patients.

Occupational violence presents as a complex problem. There can be no simple solutions. Successful strategies will require sustained, comprehensive and integrated actions. Last year’s Occupational Violence Taskforce report, Occupational Violence Prevention in Queensland Health’s Hospital and Health Services and its comprehensive 20 recommendations are an important move in the right direction. Understanding the nature of violence in the workplace, its risk factors (patient, staff, situational and interaction factors) and the perceptions of health professionals is an important step towards minimising this problem.

Related Reading on CKN

Ground Zero - Standing Up Against Violence In Our Healthcare Sector

Can improving information to patients about emergency department processes reduce aggressive behaviour towards staff?

Research paper: Antecedents and precipitants of patient-related violence in the emergency department: Results from the Australian VENT Study (Violence in Emergency Nursing and Triage)