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Why worry about workplace violence?

Why worry about workplace violence?

Used with permission of the author:

Author: Dr. Susan Steinman



14 February 2007


Workplace violence has become an alarming phenomenon worldwide. Health workers are among those particularly at risk. The negative consequences on individuals and organisations result in decreasing quality of care, increasing occupational hazards and higher costs:

  • Bullying and mobbing in the corporate workplace is expected around 25% during a 12–month period.

  • About 78% of all workers had experienced some form of victimisation and abuse in the workplace.

  • Psychological violence is more frequent than physical violence.

  • 40 - 70% of the victims report significant stress symptoms.

  • Stress and violence account for approximately 30% of the overall costs of ill-health.

The purpose of these guidelines and the VETO Programme

Based on the ILO/ICN/WHO/PSI Dr Susan Steinman developed a set of guidelines as a basic reference tool for the development of policies against violence at work. They are intended to strengthen the Employee Assistance Programme and to support all those responsible for safety in the workplace, be it governments, employers, workers, trade unions, professional bodies or members of the public. The tool will guide you through the complexity of issues to be considered when developing anti-violence strategies for all work-settings in the corporate sector.


What is workplace violence?

A widely accepted definition of workplace violence is:

Cumulative or single incidents where employee(s) are physically attacked/assaulted or emotionally abused, pressurised, harassed or threatened (overt, covert, direct, indirect) in circumstances related to their work, challenging their right to dignity and respect and/or with the reasonable likelihood of impacting on their physical or emotional safety, well-being and health and social development. (Steinman)

It includes physical and psychological violence, which often overlap. Terms frequently used are assault, attack, abuse, bullying/mobbing, sexual/racial harassment, threat.

How to approach the problem

Workplace violence is a structural problem rooted in societal, organisational and personal factors. The response should take into account all dimensions of the problem. Any approach should therefore be:

  • Integratedconsidering all types of intervention and balancing prevention, treatment and evaluation;

  • Participatory– involving all parties concerned with active roles in designing and implementing anti-violence initiatives;

  • Culturally sensitive– addressing the variations of perception and understanding of the problem;

  • Gender sensitive– recognizing the different patterns of violence faced by women and men;

  • Non-discriminatory– combating any form of discrimination;

  • Systematic– organizing coherent actions towards realistically achievable targets within an agreed time frame.

How to prevent workplace violence

Preventive measures to improve the work environment, work organisation and interpersonal relationships at the workplace have proved particularly effective.

Identify and assess the risks

Recognizing factors of risk is a precondition for effective prevention. All available information should be used, e.g. records concerning incidents, sick-leave and staff turnover, information on management style, workplace inspections, surveys, discussions with workers.

  • Organisations at risk: those located in densely populated and high crime areas, or small and isolated centres, understaffed, with insufficient resources or poor communication.

  • Staff at risk: All staff is at risk, particularly staff working with the public like call centres, cashiers, consultants etc.

  • Work situations at risk:those where staff are working alone, in contact with the public, with objects of value, with people in distress, in deteriorating working conditions.

Reduce the risk

Preconditions for a violence-free workplace

Priority should be given to the development of a human-centred workplace culture based on dignity,non-discrimination, equal opportunity and cooperation. A clear policy statement should be issued from the top management in consultation with all stakeholders. Initiatives to raise awareness at all levels should accompany all interventions.

Preventive interventions

ORGANISATIONAL– need to be given a high priority. They should include:

  • Ensuring adequate and qualified staff coverage.

  • Management style setting an example of positive attitudes and behaviours.

  • Providing appropriate information and communication structures among staff with patients and the public, for workers at special risk.

  • Changing work practices to avoid risk.

  • Providing a clear job description for every position and staff member.

  • Work time management to avoid excessive work pressure.

ENVIRONMENTAL- target the physical features of the workplace. They should include:

  • Levels of noise, colours, odours, illumination, temperature/ventilation and cleanliness of the workplace environment.

  • Workplace design, e.g. safe access, sufficient space, comfortable waiting areas, premises responding to needs of staff and public, alarm systems where necessary.

INDIVIDUAL FOCUSSED- reinforce the capacity of individuals to help prevent workplace violence. They should include:

  • Training according to the specific needs of the staff and their functions.

  • Assistance and counselling to help individuals change their attitudes and reduce stress.

  • Promotion of staff's well-being.

What to do after a violent incident

Not all violent incidents are predictable and preventable. Post-incident interventions aim to minimize the impact and prevent recurrence. Victim support should have the first priority, but all other persons directly or indirectly concerned by a violent incident / behaviour also need to be involved. Measures include:

  • Medical treatment, de-briefing, counselling and rehabilitation.

  • Representation and legal aid.

  • Grievance procedures.

  • Reporting and recording of the incident.

How to ensure effectiveness

Evaluation and monitoring of all policies and interventions is crucial for the effectiveness of anti-violence strategies. It should be an ongoing and integrated process, involving all parties concerned. An appropriate reporting and recording system is a prerequisite to establish a successful risk management cycle.

Dr Susan Steinman (previously Marais) is an internationally recognised social entrepreneur and change-maker raising awareness and developing models to address workplace violence – particularly workplace bullying (physical and emotional). Currently she is doing a pilot project for the International Labour Office/International Council of Nurses/World Health Organisation/Public Services International (ILO/ICN/WHO/PSI) Joint Programme to reduce workplace violence against health workers in the Gauteng Health Department and the outcomes are already significant and set to become a model. She is a popular speaker at local and international conferences on the topics of conflict, abuse, bullying, health and wellness programmes and corporate governance. Visit her website, http://www.worktrauma.org for more information or contact Dr Steinman at susan@worktrauma.org.

Short description
Workplace violence has become an alarming phenomenon worldwide. The negative consequences on individuals and organisations result in decreasing quality of care, increasing occupational hazards and higher costs

Keywords and relevant phrases
Abuse, bullying, corporate culture, costs, discrimination, employment equity, ill-health, intervention, mobbing, occupational hazards, victimization, perception, physical violence, psychological violence, reasonable accommodation, risk, stress, structural problem, understanding, victim support, violence-free, workplace violence. 

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