Dr Karen Michell, research programme lead for The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), considers measures employers can implement to combat threatening behaviour towards frontline workers.
According to a recent survey from The Institute of Customer Service (ICS) revealed that almost half of frontline service staff have experienced hostility from customers in the past six months, including both physical and verbal abuse.
What can make worker abuse so frustrating is that workers so often feel they are left to cope on their own with little, if any, support from line managers who often live by the maxim ‘the customer is always right’.
I can relate to this frustration. As a nurse and a frontline worker, I experienced both verbal and physical abuse from patients. Often my manager’s response would be along the lines of, “they’re inebriated and don’t know what they’re doing” or, “see it from their point of view, I’m sure they mean no harm”!
The threat to workers’ health and wellbeing is recognised as an occupational psychosocial hazard and deserves the same level of vigilance given to other hazards.
Workers, like me, were often told that it’s part of the job and you need to just move on. Is that not like telling a worker exposed to asbestos that it’s part of their job and to just accept it and move on? The threat to workers’ health and wellbeing is recognised as an occupational psychosocial hazard and deserves the same level of vigilance given to other hazards. Psychosocial hazards are less tangible, not as obvious as something like exposure to noise or extreme heat/cold, especially to those not working on the frontline. As a consequence, they’re often omitted from a risk assessment (even if unintentionally), which makes it more difficult to prevent the resultant harm.
The ICS survey reports an increase in abuse as a consequence of the cost-of-living crisis. This implies that as these pressures increase, we can expect to see further escalation in the incidence of abusive behaviour from customers and clients. This serves to highlight the need to better protect the occupational health and safety of our frontline workers.
An additional concern arises when individual events are ignored, allowing a cumulative effect on workers
An additional concern arises when individual events are ignored, allowing a cumulative effect on workers whereby a minor incident becomes the ‘straw that breaks the camel’s back’. This accumulation may well lead to increased stress, absenteeism, lost productivity, poor staff retention, poor mental health and claims for compensation.
Failing to manage these issues could lead to workers claiming ‘constructive dismissal ‘as a result of a poorly managed psychosocial hazard. Employers have a duty of care to their employees to ensure their safety and protection. Although unable to control a customer’s behaviour, there is a great deal the employer can do to protect workers.
An employer can prevent abuse of frontline staff by:
- Identifying the risk – talking to staff to understand their experiences and assess who is at risk, as well as how and when this risk is perceived
- Asking staff for their opinions and ideas to reduce and manage the risk
- Understanding where the organisation’s pinch points are. For example, in retail, a surge of customers in the early evening might require more till points to be open. Ask yourself if the risk assessment addresses potential abuse from customers at these pinch points
- Rotating workers so they are not always working at the same pinch points. We do this on the factory floor to decrease the load of manual handling and the same principle should apply to reducing the impact of psychosocial stressors.
- Providing a mechanism for staff to call for support. For example, providing panic buttons to call for assistance – we would do it to prevent theft, so why not for staff protection?
- Better managing shifts – not always giving the same people the rough shifts and trying to avoid allocating lengthy overtime as it impacts workers’ resilience
- Employing organisational policies that prioritize the mental health and wellbeing of workers. Policy should focus on workers’ perceptions rather than any given scenario since all people respond differently. When a staff member feels uncomfortable, they should call for help and not have to wait until an abusive incident has occurred
- Offering routine debriefing sessions to all workers. While working in a psychiatric ward I found the weekly debriefing sessions so helpful; we all just got to vent and blow off steam which helped our resilience
- Providing support – don’t leave staff to cope on their own
• Supporting staff with training in customer management so they know how to identify an escalating situation, how to avoid this happening and what action to take when the situation is deemed intimidating
- Watching for behaviour change in their staff – line managers can pick up those early warnings that show a worker is under stress. Remember, workers may well be facing the same issues as your customers
- Keeping records of incidents, even if just a simple report in an incident register, since it may well demonstrate the situation is worse than thought and needs attention.
In the UK, we clapped for NHS and frontline workers to recognise the work they were doing to bring us safely through the pandemic. All of us need to continue to value these workers and remember that abuse from customers isn’t only not nice – it’s a serious matter of occupational safety and health.
You can see more on recent polling data regarding customer abuse of public-facing workers on The Institute of Customer Service website
- IOSH Unacceptable behaviour, health and wellbeing at work – summary report
- Violence at work – a guide for employers
- People Management – Protecting staff from abusive customers
- Home Office Customer conduct – guidance for Passport Office Staff