Dealing with customer aggression in the workplace

An insightful panel discussion focusing on caring for staff during times of heightened emotions and stress.

Recently, Communicorp hosted an hour-long discussion on the thorny issue of OVA or Occupational Violence and Aggression. It’s no secret that the past couple of years have seen a marked rise in the incidence of customer aggression, whether it be low-level (tone of voice, intimidation) or more acute (shouting, threats, actual physical violence). Obviously, this can have a tremendously negative effect on workers and is a definite workplace risk.

dealing with customer aggression

Such aggression is one of the largest contributors to mental injury in the workplace in Australia. Sadly, many do not report it: As General Manager and Principal Psychologist at Communicorp, Mark Oostergo (who hosted the panel) noted, it can result in low morale, time off work, reduced turnover, and decreased productivity. “At the individual level it may mean prolonged distress, anxiety, or other diagnosable mental disorders that impact on our day-to-day lives.”

We wanted to find out more about how to combat customer intimidation/ abuse and strategies on how to counteract or defuse potentially damaging confrontations. Our General Manager Mark invited four guests from very different fields, each having real breadth and depth of experience in this unique and rather complex area

What followed was a lively and illuminating talk which can be seen here.

Our panelists gave fantastic accounts of some of the problems facing their respective (and very different) businesses, and offered solutions for creating safer and calmer workplaces for employees.

Fiona Andrew – National Health and Wellbeing Manager, Australia Post

Australia Post employs over 80,000 people Australia-wide. In February alone, there were over 800,000 calls to their contact centres – often to do with parcel delays. “Every day is Christmas at Australia Post”, said Fiona, but in terms of aggression, “We’ve seen it all”.

Shailendra Tripathi – Director of Health, Safety and Wellbeing, Optus

Shailendra recounted how Optus call centres and retail centres have had to deal with everything from bomb threats to physical assaults landing store managers in the ICU.
He talked about how incidents such as these impact not only the individual but the entire team.

Tiffany Simpson – People and Culture National Safety Manager, Reject Shop

The Reject Shop is growing fast but it also has its share of angry or violent customers. Tiffany said a successful strategy has been to empower staff to make their own decisions around things like theft (e.g. rather than confronting shoplifters, let them walk away) so that de-escalation can occur.

Alison De Araugo – Head of Health, Safety and Wellbeing, Estia Health

Aged care homes deal with angst both from residents, many of whom are affected by dementia, and their friends and families. Specialised training has been put in place, which has improved outcomes. Alison also touched on how cultural factors can come into play especially with around half of Estia’s staff from non-English speaking backgrounds.

Even before Covid, 88% of retail and fast-food workers were abused at work. People in healthcare, banking and finance, telecommunications, and other customer service industries also suffer. Unfortunately, post-pandemic reports suggest that some retailers are experiencing up to 400 percent increase in aggression and abuse.

But there are ways around it. Take-outs from our panel discussion included:

  1. Measure it. Accurate data can help drill down and understand the problem in more depth and detail.
  2. Ensure there’s a balance of initiatives in place to support workers; including prevention, early intervention, and support services.
  3. Empower workers through capability building, decision-making autonomy, and process.
  4. Employ a systemic approach – it takes time to address this risk

Remember, it’s all about looking after each other. The onus is on employers and staff to ensure we create a safe workplace, one that enables people to thrive and flourish.

We hope you’ll enjoy our panel discussion and if you have any further questions on the topic, please get in touch.

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