6 steps to protecting employees from workplace violence

Violence in the workplace is a serious issue – and sadly, it’s a growing problem.

According to the latest Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) statistics, there were a whopping 694,000 incidents of violence at work in 2017/18 – an increase of around 8% on the previous year.

But what type of incidents are we talking about?

The Health and Safety Executive defines workplace violence as being: ‘any incident in which a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work’.

Verbal abuse and threats are by far the most common and physical injuries are gladly rare. However, they do happen and may include black eyes, bruising, scratches, broken bones, head injuries and puncture wounds.

Having a workplace violence-prevention programme is therefore crucial, especially for those organisations where employees may be working within an environment that has a heightened risk.

Here we take a closer look at the issue and the steps employers can take to protect their employees.


Your responsibilities as an employer

Firstly, a quick mention of your legal responsibilities as an employer.

All employers have a legal responsibility when it comes to providing and maintaining a safe place for their employees to work. Employers must assess the risks to employees and make arrangements for their health and safety. They must also notify their enforcing authority in the event of an incident at work that results in the death, major injury or incapacity of an employee.

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 also specifies that employees (at all levels) are personally responsible and legally accountable for their own behaviour at work. There is a responsibility for employees to take ‘reasonable care’ of their own health and safety, as well as the health and safety of other persons who may be affected by their actions.


How common is workplace violence?

Industry sector, size of the organisation and the extent to which team members are interacting with customers and the general public, are all factors in how big a problem violent incidents may be.

54% of workplace violence is carried out by strangers, for example, site visitors, customers and the general public, meaning employees in these types of roles have a heightened risk.

For example, those who are engaged in:  

  • giving a service
  • caring
  • education
  • cash transactions
  • delivery/collection
  • controlling
  • representing authority

The latest NHS staff survey reveals that 14.5% of staff experienced physical violence from patients, their relatives or the public last year. On average, meaning there were more than 200 reported violent attacks on NHS workers happening every day.


What is the impact of such incidents?

If threats and violence are common, or even if it’s purely an isolated event, the effect on staff can be long-lasting. Aside from any physical injuries that may be sustained, there can be a serious impact on mental health, from stress and anxiety to low morale.

Whether it’s verbal or physical violence, such incidents may also harm an organisation – potentially damaging reputation, staff retention rates, causing absenteeism and overall influencing financial success.

So, what can you do about it?


6 steps to protecting employees from workplace violence


  1. Assess the risk

Make sure you are fully aware and up to date on the potential risk. Opening a dialogue with employees – such as conducting an anonymous survey - to gain their first-hand experiences and views can be helpful here. Ask if they ever feel threatened, and if so, when, where and why.

Identify which employees are at most risk and think what steps can be taken to reduce that risk – such as any changes you might be able to make to the workplace environment, providing additional training or making use of trained security professionals (see Point 4).

Overall, aim to promote safe working business practices that will reduce the likelihood of violent incidents occurring.


  1. Have a zero-tolerance policy

Introduce and enforce a zero-tolerance policy for workplace violence, whether it is between or against employees. This needs to be shared and visible, so it is well-known that such behaviour is not acceptable and will be taken extremely seriously. Taking the NHS as an example, such signs are now a common sight within waiting rooms and reception area.


  1. Set behaviour expectations from day one

Set the tone for how you expect employees to behave from day one. Speak to new recruits about the culture and values of the organisation, how important being respectful to colleagues and customers is and what processes and procedures are in place to deal with issues. You may choose to introduce a charter for employees to sign to confirm they have read and understood your expectations and also to check they are clear on what to do if they ever have a problem.


  1. Have trained security officers on site

There are many circumstances where the support of professional security officers may be beneficial, or indeed necessary, for an organisation. The presence of trained security officers on site can act as a deterrent, while also offering reassurance to employees and visitors alike. There may also be a benefit to installing CCTV in certain settings.

Were an incident to arise, then a trained and experienced officer would be able to step in and manage the situation – potentially reducing the impact on employees. Commonly referred to as manned guarding, such officers may be employed inhouse or via an external agency. Their skills and training may typically include conflict management and first aid.  

See case study: Salisbury Cathedral introduces manned guarding  


  1. Have an emergency action plan

If there has been a violent incident, what happens next? You need a plan. This should cover everything from providing medical attention as quickly as possible, to how you will document the incident, what will happen following the incident (including communication to employees and other stakeholders), and also what may be offered in the sense of physical and mental health support, counselling and ongoing medical attention.

Keep detailed records about what happened, when, where, who was involved and what the outcome was for those involved – including for the business. Also, record what action has been taken as a consequence. This information is important documentation and may also help you spot patterns and ensure you truly understand what’s happening.


For more advice and guidance, visit the Health & Safety Executive website.