Workplace aggression is on the rise - here's what you can do about it

Written by Sarah Denness   |   27 Apr 2021
Workplace aggression is on the rise - here's what you can do about it

Feeling safe in your workplace is a fundamental right.  

But in many working environments feeling safe may easily be at risk when aggression in the workplace raises its head.

It may not be the top of the health and safety agenda for every workplace, but aggression can have a serious impact on your employees and your business if it is not managed carefully.

World Day for Health and Safety at Work, on 28 April, is an ideal opportunity to question how aggression is managed in your workplace and what action can be taken to better support your employees.

The global annual day focuses on: 

  • Recognising how workplace safety initiatives reduce injury and fatality rates   
  • Honouring and remembering employees who have lost their lives at work 

It also prompts us to reflect on how we can better prevent work-related injury and illness - especially considering the rapidly-evolving nature of work. 

 

Growing concerns for workplace safety

Safe Work Australia reports 10% of mental health injury claims relate to occupational violence and aggression (OVA), and a further 20% from work-related harassment or bullying. 

Irrespective of their business objectives, employees in customer service-based roles have seen an increase in OVA incidents throughout Australian workplaces.  

The impact of aggression in the workplace for employees is significant, affecting: 

  • their sense of psychological safety (i) 

  • sleep and physical health (ii)  

  • tenure (iii)  

  • job satisfaction (iv) (v) (vi) (vii)  

Employers are also experiencing the costly impact to: 

  • financial performance, reputational costs (viii) 

  • decreased productivity (ix) (x) (xi) (xii) 

Meanwhile the impact is also being felt beyond the workplace with a community and socio-economic cost (xiii). 

Case Study - Shanae*

Shanae has always experienced customer aggression. As a Claims Manager for a large insurance company, sometimes her clients can become angry and abusive.

Mostly, this aggression is experienced via phone calls with clients upset over claims decisions made. But since Shanae started working from home, the calls have become harder to handle. 

“When I was in the office, we had a system where I would just raise a red card, and a team leader would come and support me,” she said.

“I could debrief afterward, and when I left for the day, I could leave the experience behind me.” 

Now, Shanae says these experiences are creeping into her home life, and are much harder to deal with.

“At the start of the pandemic, we had no systems in place to ask our team leaders for help – in most cases, I would have to dial a manager’s mobile, hope they would answer, and then hold the phone up to the speaker to get them in on the call.” 

Shanae also said it was harder to de-brief and decompress following the aggressive calls. 

“It’s better now that we have access to better technology, but I still feel like home isn’t a safe space anymore – I can’t escape that ‘mood’ of aggression.” 

*Not the client’s real name.

Aggressive 1

 

 

Trends in customer aggression during COVID-19 

“We are seeing workplace aggression and conflict identified as a major concern for more and more employers,” according to Mark Oostergo, General Manager of specialist psychological consultancy firm  Communicorp.

“It was on the rise pre-pandemic, and the rapid change in workplace conditions and increasing stressors in 2020 has resulted in many employers needing support to keep their people safe,” he said. 

Like Shenae, many other Australians have experienced increased aggression while working, with many having to face it while working remotely and often by themselves. 

Michele Grow, CEO of Health and Wellbeing at APM shares similar observations.

“We hear all sorts of stories – colleagues who are behaving more aggressively because they are behind a screen instead of face-to-face is a common issue. 

“Encountering aggressive home-based workers when trying to complete deliveries or services is also becoming more common.” 

As essential services, retail and health workers are among those experiencing an increase in events and intensity of customer aggression over the past year.

What was previously a minor disagreement is now more likely to escalate into a more aggressive incident. 

Michele added: “In almost every industry, but most especially service and healthcare industries, this is a concerning and growing problem.” 

“Most employers I speak with have identified managing workplace aggression and conflict as one of their top three safety initiatives for the year.” 


De-escalating to a solution 

It is important to take a sustainable, holistic approach to managing risks associated with workplace conflict, aggression, and violence.  

This approach was successfully deployed in 2020 by a member-based financial services firm.

They were able to demonstrate substantial improvements in perceptions of workplace safety and respectful interactions.  

They took multiple steps, including:

  1. Undertaking a thorough risk assessment - including review of data, policies and procedures. 
  1. Actively measuring employee perceptions of psychosocial risk. 
  1. Extensive stakeholder engagement at all levels of the business. 
  1. Developing protocols and tools on proactive de-escalation and management of conflict situations. 
  1. Investing in training and capability development for both frontline staff and leaders. 

As a result, 92% of participants expressed increased confidence in their psychosocial safety at work, an incredible testament to this organisation’s commitment.  

“At the end of the day we are still seeing many individuals come to us with substantial psychological damage because workplaces didn’t know how to implement effective controls.  However, the tide is turning,” said Michele Grow.

“Many of our clients are leading the way in dealing with these issues, adopting better practices for engaging help, and importantly, making ‘speaking up’ culturally acceptable. 

“No one should have to bear the brunt of unhealthy conflict, aggression and violence in the workplace.” 

CCOPR 9

 
Image: Communicorp 2021

 

 

 

 

What you can do now

1. Remember that workplace aggression and conflict rarely occurs in a bubble. There are many complex factors, both within and outside of your control, that lead to hostility.

Communicorp’s psychosocial risk and protective factors can help you understand and identify what factors you need to consider. 

2. Take a risk-based approach, with the understanding that you will never have a workplace that is free from conflict.  Identify situations and scenarios that are at the highest risk of unsafe escalation and put in place a range of controls that minimise that risk. Safe Work Australia offer a range of resources to get you started.

3. Where you identify high risks, get the experts involved – conflict, aggression and violence are complex issues and cannot be ‘fixed’ through a simple training session. 

4. With the right controls and resources in place, this problem can be addressed and you can create a safe work environment.   

Additional information: 

 


 
References 

i Schat, A. C., & Kelloway, E. K. (2000). Effects of perceived control on the outcomes of workplace aggression and violence. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 5(3), 386-402. doi: 10.1037//1076-8998.5.3.386
ii Rogers, K., A, & Kelloway, E., K. (1997). Violence at Work: Personal and Organizational Outcomes. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 2(1), 63-71. doi: 10.1037/1076-8998.2.1.63
iii Ceramidas, D. M., & Parker, R. (2010). A response to patient-initiated aggression in general practice: Australian professional medical organisations face a challenge. Australian Journal of Primary Health, 16(3), 252-259. doi: 10.1071/PY09074
iv Bruce, M. D., & Nowlin, W. A. (2011). Workplace Violence: Awareness, Prevention, and Response. Public Personnel Management, 40(4), 293-308.
v Hills, D., & Joyce, C. (2013). A review of research on the prevalence, antecedents, consequences and prevention of workplace aggression in clinical medical practice. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 18(5), 554-569. doi: 10.1016/j.avb.2013.07.014
vi Kowalenko, Cunningham, R., Sachs, C. J., Gore, R., Barata, I. A., Gates, D. M., . . . McClain, A. (2012). Workplace Violence in Emergency Medicine: Current Knowledge and Future Directions. The Journal of Emergency Medicine, 43(3), 523-531. doi: 10.1016/j.jemermed.2012.02.056
vii O'Brien-Pallas, L., Hayes, L., Wang, S., & Laporte, D. (2009). Creating work environments that are violence free. World Hospitals and Health Services: the Official Journal of the International Hospital Federation, 45(2), 12-18
viii Hills, D., & Joyce, C. (2013). A review of research on the prevalence, antecedents, consequences and prevention of workplace aggression in clinical medical practice. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 18(5), 554-569. doi: 10.1016/j.avb.2013.07.014
ix Bruce, M. D., & Nowlin, W. A. (2011). Workplace Violence: Awareness, Prevention, and Response. Public Personnel Management, 40(4), 293-308.
x Hills, D., & Joyce, C. (2013). A review of research on the prevalence, antecedents, consequences and prevention of workplace aggression in clinical medical practice. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 18(5), 554-569. doi: 10.1016/j.avb.2013.07.014
xi Kowalenko, Cunningham, R., Sachs, C. J., Gore, R., Barata, I. A., Gates, D. M., . . . McClain, A. (2012). Workplace Violence in Emergency Medicine: Current Knowledge and Future Directions. The Journal of Emergency Medicine, 43(3), 523-531. doi: 10.1016/j.jemermed.2012.02.056
xii O'Brien-Pallas, L., Hayes, L., Wang, S., & Laporte, D. (2009). Creating work environments that are violence free. World Hospitals and Health Services: the Official Journal of the International Hospital Federation, 45(2), 12-18
xiii Magin, P., Adams, J., Ireland, M., Joy, E., Heaney, S., & Darab, S. (2006). The response of general practitioners to the threat of violence in their practices: Results from a qualitative study. Family Practice, 23(3), 273-278. doi: 10.1093/fampra/cmi11