Many agencies involved in working with the public have been developing ‘policies’ for handling aggression and violence. While these statements of commitment from employers to the safety of frontline staff and the catalogue of intentions aimed at supporting staff are laudable in themselves, often they fail to clarify what behaviours are covered in the policy. In short, sometimes they do not answer the question: ‘What do we mean by aggression and violence?’ It is one of those questions which is easy to begin answering – well obviously physically violent behaviour, actual or threatened use of weapons, threats to the safety of staff, their family and property, and so on. But, at some point it can become more difficult to get agreement – for example, what about swearing? Is it always unacceptable, or just when it is part of a collection of aggressive behaviour directed personally to staff – for example, with shouting, eye-balling, pointing finger, invasion of space, and so on. In trying to create a comprehensive ‘definition’ of what is aggression and violence in the workplace, there are two main considerations, the first relating to the agency and what it does, and the second to individual members of staff. Firstly, in many organisations such as health and social care agencies, staff often meet people who are not at their best, who may be in pain, who may be at the end of their tether, who may be very anxious, and so on. In addition, resources available to many agencies are often not sufficient to meet the needs or expectations of service users. Thus the agency itself may add to people’s experience of frustration and disappointment, and inadvertently contribute to angry feelings. We should not be surprised, therefore that people who use such agencies will sometimes become angry and express that anger. The point at which we draw the line between tolerable and intolerable behaviour perhaps should reflect the nature of the service users; for example, would it be the same for a receptionist, a care worker with adolescents, a nurse in a psychiatric ward, and so on? The important consideration about where the line is drawn is that, no matter how much we understand the roots of the behaviour, staff must not put themselves, or remain, in danger of being injured, including psychological upset that might show itself much later. Secondly, lists of aggression and violence often include a catch-all category such as: ‘Any behaviour that staff experience as offensive or upsetting.’ While such a phrase has a very real place in policies, we must recognise that individuals have different tolerances when faced with aggressive behaviour. One individual, because of experience and/or personality, may cope well with far more than another and would probably draw the line between tolerable and intolerable much further along the spectrum. It is therefore important that managers monitor the individual coping capacities of staff to ensure that staff are not taking risks that really are unacceptable or perhaps unable to cope with difficulties expected in the agency. Finally, completing the catalogue of unacceptable behaviours can be done more easily by describing unacceptable behaviour rather than trying to define it. If we simply say, for example, ‘verbal abuse’, this can mean different things to different people. On the other hand, possibly focusing on something that has happened and describing it in words is much more likely to get narrower consensus among staff. Thus, in time not only will a realistic list evolve, but it will be far more likely to have the agreement of all staff.
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