An average of 455 incidents of violence and abuse were perpetrated against retail shopworkers in Britain every day in 2019, according to the British Retail Consortium. The U.K. Railway Safety and Standards Board reported that 94 percent of frontline rail staff experienced workplace abuse in 2020, with 25 percent of incidents being physical assaults. In the same year, the Fire Brigades Union found that UK firefighters were subjected to a total of 1,170 attacks.
These sombre statistics illustrate just how serious the issue of aggression in the workplace is, particularly the variety carried out against frontline service delivery personnel.
Why are these numbers so high, and what can be done to reduce them? These were key questions addressed by Nicole Vazquez, Director at Worthwhile Training, a Stratford-upon-Avon, U.K.-based workplace consultancy and training outfit, during a session at the recent Health & Safety Matters Conference.
In attempting to pinpoint what the main causes of aggression in the workplace are, Vazquez identified two distinct forms. The first is known as instrumental aggression, which is the type that is borne out of theft and where aggression serves as a means to an end. The aggression in these cases is used to gain something. The second type of aggression is referred to as emotional aggression. In these instances,the aggression or the violence is an end in itself, and it often stems from a kind of anger.
Delving deeper into this emotional variety, Vazquez first noted a long-existent argument that it is a product of the human condition. This stipulates that humans are aggressive creatures and that sometimes our hormones are liable to make us behave in a particular way to deal with stress levels. In other instances, these responses appear to be nurtured throughout a lifetime.
“Sadly, there are just people in this world that have been brought up to believe that being aggressive gets you what you want, so they will use violence and aggression as a means to an end.”
The Three Triggers
Vazquez then pointed out three key triggers of emotional aggression in the workplace. Knowing what they are and being able to recognize them can go a long way to curbing instances of aggression or limiting its effects.
“If, in the workplace, you cause your clients, your customers, your service users – the people you come into contact with – either fear, frustration or humiliation, you are likely to trigger some kind of reaction that could lead to aggression.”
Looking at the idea of fear, Vazquez provided examples of professions that by their very nature are apt to induce this feeling within customers or service recipients, due largely in part to the fact that these workers possess the ability to take services away from people.
“If, for example, you work in the security industry, it may well be that people are fearful of the power you have, or that you may report them, or that the police may be called. And if you work for social services, there may be fear about taking children away or making judgments about how you live.”
The second trigger, frustration, is often seen in service industries, Vazquez pointed out, such as retail, hospitality, or travel.
“How many of us have never felt frustrated with the services that were offered by organizations?” she asked attendees. “If something doesn’t run the way that person is expecting it to run, there is going to be a level of frustration.”
The feeling of humiliation as a trigger for workplace aggression is frequently witnessed in the field of support services. Someone who needs a charity worker, for instance, to enter their residence and provide support, may have conditions in their life that make them feel uncomfortable when exposing them to an outsider.
“Just the nature of opening your front door and allowing people into your home where perhaps you live in a situation that you’re not that proud of – it may be mental health issues, it may be monetary issues, there could be a hostile domestic situation – these all can make people feel humiliated. just by the very nature of needing your support and your help.”
Focus on Reduction
There are certain tactics that organizations can take to help reduce the frequency of aggressive acts toward front-line service staff, Vazquez noted. One is to provide customers with as accurate a time frame for when a service will be delivered. For instance, rather than an appliance company telling a purchaser that their new dishwasher will be delivered between nine and five on a certain day, that company can tell the customer that they will call them on the day of delivery with a two-hour timeslot within which the delivery will take place. Vazquez noted that in her experience, this approach “has made a difference in the level of verbal abuse that employees are getting from their customers when they arrive.”
Another tactic focuses on setting boundaries for customers with whom a company has an existing relationship. This involves talking or writing to a person who displayed aggression, explaining why their behavior was unacceptable, and talking about how that will have an impact on the service levels that the company is or is not able to provide them in the future.
Employers also have a crucial role to play in reducing the number of incidents of aggression perpetrated against their employees, and that role centers on training, Vazquez said.
“It’s one thing [for an employer to say] to a staff member, ‘Remove yourself if you feel uncomfortable in a difficult situation,’ but it’s another thing [for an employee] to have the skills to be able to do that.”
Key elements of an effective training program include: definition of roles and responsibilities for all staff involved in service provisioning; how individuals can ensure their personal safety and security; conflict avoidance techniques; conflict management, particularly aimed at individuals in higher-risk roles; and post-incident support workshops.
Vazquez emphasized that for aggression mitigation training to be truly effective, it has to involve exposing employees to “under-pressure” scenarios: those which put employees on the spot, just as a real-life aggression incident will.
“This gets people to take the theory and see whether it actually works….It gets people to feel it rather than just think about it.”