Prevention of work-related violence to staff in the education sector

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Roxane L. Gervais, Health & Safety Laboratory, UK

Violence in the education sector: An introduction

One of the risks to which staffs in the education sector are exposed is violence. When workers are exposed to violence, it may impact adversely on their health and wellbeing. Additionally, this may affect their ability to function as educators. This article focuses mainly on third-party violence, i.e., that which is perpetrated against staff by pupils / students / parents, but provides as well some information on violence perpetrated by colleagues. It outlines the impact that work-related violence has on those who experience it, and presents good practice and prevention examples that are available for educational institutions and workers in this sector.

Defining violence and assessing its prevalence

Violence at work refers to any incident in which a person is abused, threatened, or assaulted at work, and which in turn endangers his or her safety, health, wellbeing, or work performance. There are different elements of violence inclusive of: insults, threats, physical, psychological, or sexual aggression exerted by people from inside or outside the organisation against a person at work[1][2]. It may include also cyber-harassment. Cyber-harassment has become more prominent over the past few years due to the increasing availability of mobile information technology, such as through ‘smart’ phones and tablet computers. It is multi-faceted and involves using easily accessible outlets for information and communication technologies, facilitated by e-mail, chat rooms, discussion groups, blogs, websites, social networking sites, virtual learning environments, instant messaging, mobile phones or short message services to engage in repeated deliberate and hostile behaviour against any particular individual or group in order to isolate or hurt them[3]. The form of the cyber-harassment could include sending continuous e-mail messages to an individual who has asked not to be contacted; threatening them, or sending them sexual remarks, or using pejorative labels against individuals through the same media; or by ganging up on victims by making them the subject of ridicule in forums, posting false statements, and passing on pictures, sound recordings or films through mobile technology[3].

In some situations, there may be a racial or sexual dimension to the violence. It is essential to note that violence to workers is an occupational safety and health (OSH) issue and should be dealt with at the organisational level. It is not an individual’s problem[4]. Moreover, it is a global issue with research showing increasing violence against staff in the education sector in amongst other countries, Canada, the United States of America (USA) and Japan [5][6]. Within the European Union (EU) the rates of work-related violence have remained stable since 1995[7]. It is acknowledged that there is a paucity of research on violence against teachers [5] [8] [9] [10], which supports the need for this type of research to build an evidence-base on which to draw to address better this issue. However, as violence occurs against all staff in the education sector, such as teaching assistants, maintenance staff, cleaners, cooks, secretaries, and other support personnel and not only teachers[4], the research should include these various groups as well.

Violence tends to happen in situations of suppressed tension or pressure, i.e. unresolved issues, especially when personal issues are at stake, and individuals feel that their concerns have not been heard. This includes any intense disagreements that have not been discussed and settled adequately; these can lead quickly to violent situations[4]. Third-party violence against teachers and other staff can originate from pupils, ex-pupils, parents, visitors, or intruders [4[4]. In 2007, the Fourth European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS) found that 8% of all staff in the education sector had been subjected to violence[7]. The fourth EWCS showed that in the EU-27, 17% of teachers experienced threats of violence when compared to an average of 6% of all workers in the EU. Similar patterns were shown for physical violence from colleagues (4.5% to 2%), physical violence from non-colleagues (6% to 4.5%) and harassment (also sometimes referred to as bullying, 7% to 5.5%); with teachers more likely to have experienced some aspect of violent behaviour when compared to the average EU worker[11]. In 2009, the European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE) surveyed its members and received responses from 32 member unions across Europe[3]. The results showed that most of the respondents, 23 members, considered cyber-harassment a hazard in the workplace. A survey conducted in 2011 across schools in Europe with 5,461 participants, showed that size of class was a contributing factor to violence; with the smallest classes (i.e., those with fewer than 15 pupils) being more likely to contribute to physical violence against teachers[12]. Statistics from the United Kingdom found that 86,770 cases of physical assault or verbal abuse by pupils against adults were reported in England over the course of the school year (2009/10) [13]. In the USA, one-third of school social workers, from a survey of 576, reported that they feared for their personal safety on average once per month[14].

In the education sector, violent situations may arise during working directly with pupils and/or their guardians (e.g. parents), and there is a higher risk of violence involving:

  • Working late or alone;
  • Making off-site or home visits; or
  • Working with children with special needs.

The types of activities listed above could be labelled as emotionally or intellectually demanding, especially as they involve a high level of social interaction. Research has shown that sectors involved in such a level of interaction are those that are more likely to have the highest levels of incidents of violence[11]. Furthermore, lone working or visiting homes have the potential to turn into hazardous activities [15] [16][17].

The impact of violence on educational institutions and staff

Violence can have detrimental effects on those subjected to it. In one study, the majority of responding teachers (56%, n = 393) felt that violence or the threat of violence directly affected the quality of their teaching practices[9]. Systematic and lengthy conditions of harassment and overall victimisation have been shown to have direct impact on teachers’ health levels, and ultimately results in the affected teachers removing themselves from the profession[7].

The costs of violence to the organisation, as well as the overall impact that this has on staff can be either direct or indirect in nature. While specific costs to the education sector have not been identified, the overall impact off violence is comparable, regardless of sector, as outlined below[18].

The direct costs to the worker could include:

  • The pain and suffering of the injury or illness;
  • The loss of income;
  • The possible loss of a job; and
  • Health-care costs.

The outcomes listed above could arise when staff within the education sector, leave their jobs due to their inability to continue working due to the level of violence that they may have experienced. Cyber-harassment especially has been shown to impact adversely on teachers’ current and future employment opportunities, and their professional reputation[19]. Cyber-harassment is, furthermore, to be considered a psychosocial hazard in the working environment of teachers, as it can deeply affect the personality, dignity and integrity of the victim[19].

The indirect costs to the worker could entail [4][18]:

  • Stress;
  • Emotional trauma;
  • Feelings of powerlessness;
  • Demotivation;
  • The human suffering caused to the workers' families, when injuries or even fatalities occur, which cannot be compensated financially;
  • The indirect costs have been estimated to be four to ten times greater than the direct costs, or in some cases even more.

The direct costs to the employer could include[18]:

  • Payment for work not performed;
  • Medical and compensation payments;
  • Repair or replacement of damaged furniture and equipment;
  • Reduction or a temporary disruption in teaching or tutoring;
  • Increased training expenses and administration costs;
  • Possible reduction in the quality of work;
  • Negative effect on morale in other workers.

The indirect costs to the employer could include [4][18]:

  • Higher staff turnover;
  • Increased absenteeism and sickness absence;
  • Higher insurance costs;
  • Replacing the injured/ill worker;
  • Training a new worker and giving her/him the time to adjust to the job;
  • Accepting that the new worker, e.g. a teacher would need time before s/he is up to the teaching standards of the original trained teacher;
  • Devoting time to obligatory investigations, to the writing of reports and filling out of forms;
  • Addressing those incidents due to work-related violence that often arouse the concern of fellow workers and influence labour relations in a negative way;
  • The poor public relations that may result from the poor safety and health conditions in the workplace, such as teachers having a too high workload.

Ideally, any prevention programme that is implemented should be evaluated to check that it is producing the required results or to amend if it is not. However, most programmes tend not to be evaluated, and as well many organisations neither systematically nor rigorously collect organisational data to assess any emerging risks or hazards. As a result, it has been and continues to be difficult to gain accurate figures for the cost of violence in the workplace, and this includes what occurs in the education sector[20]. One estimate for the total cost of stress and violence at work suggests that such psychosocial issues in the workplace may cost an estimated 1-3.5% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) [20]. Moreover, due to the close links with, for example stress, ill health and violence it is difficult to isolate the costs for any one factor in particular[20].

Workers who experience violence or harassment report lower levels of [[Job satisfaction 2 – evidence for impact on reducing psychosocial risks|job satisfaction and higher levels of work-related ill health. Further, those workers who have experienced violence or harassment when compared to those who have not, are twice as likely to exhibit symptoms of psychological disturbance (such as, stress, sleeping problems, anxiety and irritability due to their work); with an estimated 52% of those workers exposed to harassment tending to report increased levels of work-related stress. Moreover, stress and its related symptoms are more likely to occur when the individual worker continues to work with the perpetrator(s) of the violence and/or harassment: i.e. from colleague(s) [11]. One recent study has shown that teachers may be more affected by harassment than by violence, but that when there is effective handling of the violence that this functions as a form of support and allows the teachers to use this support as a form of control within the workplace[10].

Overall, violent incidents that occur within the workplace in general tend to be underreported thereby contributing to a lower acknowledgement of the extent of the problem[4].

Good practice and prevention

Employers in the European Union (EU) are required to evaluate the risks to the safety and health of workers and to take the appropriate action to prevent or control those risks, as outlined in the Framework Directive 89/391/EEC[21].

As noted, interventions should first be targeted at the organisational level [22]. At the organisational level, the stressors within the work environment are more effectively addressed. As a second step, measures to support the individual and to help workers strengthen their coping mechanisms should be taken into account. The risk management process can be broken down into a series of steps.

  • Plan your assessment in consultation with the workforce.
  • Identify the hazards.
  • Decide who may be harmed, how, and where.
  • Assess the level of risk and decide on action.
  • Take action to eliminate or reduce the risk.
  • Monitor and review the actions.

The use of interventions is one of the steps that allow an organisation to develop a prevention culture. This process is explored in Section on prevention programmes by presenting one proposed programme. A culture of prevention that leads to consistent good practice within an organisation helps to reduce poor behaviour (such as violence and harassment), as it is accepted that such behaviour would not be tolerated[23].

Risk assessment, prevention, and protection

The risk assessment process

As with any hazard or risk that may or does occur at the workplace, it is essential to conduct a risk assessment to explore those psychosocial risks to workers’ health and if possible to use one that has been specifically designed for the education sector. The two checklists that follow outline some of the issues that should be reviewed when trying to eliminate or reduce third-party violence in the education sector, and should be considered as part of the risk assessment process.

Prevention Work Violence checklist 1.jpg

Source: EU-OSHA Facts 47 [4]

Minimising harm checklist 2.jpg

Source: EU-OSHA Facts 47 [4]

Prevention programmes

As mentioned, prevention programmes assist in reducing the risk of violence in the education sector. While various programmes could be implemented, the ones listed below provide basic steps or procedures that an educational institution could adapt to make it specific to its institution, especially in respect of third-party violence, which should improve its success rate.

The first programme recommends that each level of the institution should be considered in developing one strategy that is holistic to the organisation[24]. This includes taking account of the following aspects:

  • At the student level, individual youth aggressive behaviour patterns directed toward teachers and other school personnel could be reduced or eliminated. This could involve using a three-tiered service delivery prevention model: i.e., primary (e.g., skills training); secondary (e.g. mentoring programmes); and tertiary (e.g. exploring and acting on why problem behaviours occur) system of intervention.
  • At the teacher level, teachers use evidence-based practices, such as stating clearly the rules and classroom behaviours that are acceptable.
  • At the classroom level, the teachers take control of the classroom by implementing instructional and management techniques.
  • The strategies used at the classroom level are mirrored at the school level, with instructional and management practices set in place. These could include developing comprehensive systems that detail the types of behaviours that are acceptable.
  • The community plays a part as well in this model, with community leaders and organisers engaging young people in positive activities. Such activities could work to increase a sense of personal value and self-worth, while involving the young in local problem solving and decision making could lead to them having a healthier perception of responsibility.

A detailed eight-step procedure to develop a workplace third party violence prevention programme is presented below. (Adapted from Simonowitz et al., 1997 and Ruff et al., 2004 [6][25])

Step 1: Ensuring that both the management and staff support the need to implement a violence prevention programme.

Step 2: Assess and analyse the history of violence in the community and workplace (school), inclusive of the violence rates and incidences.

Step 3: Review and analyse the occupational safety and health (OSH) illness and injury records and insurance and workers’ compensation reports to determine the patterns of violence.

Step 4: Complete a worksite (risk) assessment. This is a detailed, methodical inspection of the workplace to identify existing or potential hazards.

Step 5: Develop formal written policies and reporting procedures. This ensures that all staff members are aware that workplace violence is not acceptable, whoever is the perpetrator. It reinforces to the staff also that they have a support system from administrative procedures and colleagues. In addition, the reporting system helps to outline: the severity of the problem; the events about each incident; and the resulting action. The policy should include the consequences when someone displays violent behaviour. A lack of consequences reinforces violent behaviour and encourages the aggression against others. The policy should also include: a zero tolerance for physical and verbal threats and ensure that no action is taken against the reporting employee; encourage employees to report incidents promptly; and establish a safety assessment committee that assesses risk, measures progress, ensures adequate documentation and identifies ways to prevent violence. In addition, the organisation should establish a liaison with the local police department.

Step 6: Develop and implement collective measures and post-incident responses. Some examples of measures may include:

  • Installing security cameras, which could work to curtail violent behaviour;
  • Increasing the presence of teachers and staff in hallways, the cafeteria, and playground;
  • Having a visitor sign-in when entering the building;
  • Controlling access to the building(s);
  • Controlling access to the school grounds;
  • Conducting drug checks; and
  • Installing metal detectors.

It is important to bear in mind the key to preventing workplace and school violence is to prevent its occurrence; and the use of one or several of these prevention measures may be a central component of any developed prevention strategy.

Step 7: Ensure adequate levels of training and education are in place. Train and educate staff how to recognise potential offenders and address/manage potentially threatening situations, as this is a key preventive strategy. Enrol staff on training programmes that show them how to recognise signs of aggressive behaviour in children and other adults, and also how to interact with these aggressive individuals in order to reduce the aggression. As counselling for these violent individuals is imperative, efforts should be made to get them into counselling. Staff should be trained in the use of anger management strategies that should work when dealing with aggressive individuals.

Step 8: Document all violent incidents and evaluate the effectiveness of the training prevention programme. The evaluation could include: reviewing reports of workplace violence committee meetings, and analysing any trends to emerge.

Although evaluation is the last step in any preventative programme, it is essential that it is not seen as one that should not be done or overlooked in the process. The evaluation of the development intervention / strategy helps to refine and re-evaluate what is needed and how any further improvements can be made. For example, in the USA, where 61% of its school districts are required to have training programmes in place, very few undergo any evaluation of their effectiveness[26]. This clearly limits the degree to which key stakeholders can understand how effective the programme was, and, in turn, how the programme should be improved. Moreover, programmes should have a particular focus, as an evaluation of 450 prevention programmes found that those with a focus on family relationships and functioning, including managing relationships and parenting practices, are more effective than those that are not[26].

Conclusions

Violence within schools is an issue that needs to be reduced and ultimately eliminated. As shown in this article, it adversely affects the health of teachers, and the quality of teaching that the educators can then provide to students. In order to ensure a holistic and dynamic prevention process, the different levels should be considered when designing a prevention programme, from the pupil to the community. Education is a social facet that involves educators, students, parents and the community. As such the adverse effects are far reaching, from the individual to the community at large. Moreover, workers within the education sector need to improve on reporting incidents of violence[27], which would allow the development of an enhanced evidence base and perhaps allow different perspectives in how to address this issue.

References

  1. Wynne, R., Clarkin, N., Cox, T. & Griffiths, A., Guidance on the prevention of violence at work, 1997. Brussels, European Commission, DG-V, Ref. CE/VI-4/97.
  2. ILO - International Labour Organization, Code of practice on workplace violence in services sectors and measures to combat this phenomenon. Meeting of Experts to Develop a Code of Practice on Violence and Stress at Work in Services: A Threat to Productivity and Decent Work (8-15 October 2003), Geneva. Available at: [1]
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 ETUCE - European Trade Union Committee for Education, Report on the ETUCE survey on cyber-harassment. How teacher trade unions address violence and cyber-harassment at national level, European Trade Union Committee for Education, Brussels, 2009. Available at: [2]
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 4.8 EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Facts 47: Prevention of violence to staff in the education sector, 2003. Available at: [3]
  5. 5.0 5.1 Wilson, C. M., Douglas, K. S. & Lyon, D. R., ‘Violence against teachers: Prevalence and consequence’, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Vol. 26, No 12, 2011, pp. 2353-2371.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Ruff, J. M., Gerding, G. & Hong, O., ‘Workplace violence against K-12 teachers’, AAOHN Journal, the official journal of the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses, Inc., now Workplace Health & Safety, Vol. 52, No 5, 2004, pp. 204-209.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Parent-Thirion, A., Macías, E. F., Hurley, J. & Vermeylen, G., Fourth European Working Conditions Survey, European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, 2007. Available at: [4]
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  9. 9.0 9.1 Fisher, K. & Kettl, P., ‘Teachers’ perceptions of school violence’, Journal of Pediatric Health Care, Vol. 17, No 2, 2003, pp. 79-83.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Fox, S. & Stallworth, L. E., ‘The battered apple: An application of stressor-emotion-control/support theory to teachers’ experience of violence and bullying’, Human Relations, Vol. 63, No 7, pp. 927-954.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Eurofound - European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, Violence in the education sector - Background paper, 2008. Available at: [5]
  12. Nübling, M, Vomstein, M., Haug, A., Nübling, T. & Adiwidjaja, A., European-Wide Survey on Teachers Work Related Stress – Assessment, Comparison and Evaluation of the Impact of Psychosocial Hazards on Teachers at their Workplace, European Trade Union Committee for Education, 2011. Available at: [6]
  13. No author, ‘Calls for action on violence against school staff’, Safety Express, September/October 2011, 2011, p. 14.
  14. Astor, R. V., Behre, W. J., Wallace, J. M. & Fravil, K. A., ‘School social workers and school violence: Personal safety, training and violence programs’, Social Work, Vol. 43, No 3, 1998, pp. 223-232.
  15. Crozier, S. & Gervais, R. L., An Assessment of a Business Approach to Reducing the Number and Impact of Violent Incidents and Other Health & Safety Risks to TV Licence Officers, Health & Safety Laboratory, 2009. HSL Report WPS/08/10.
  16. Beswick, J., Benjamin K., White, J., Jackson, K. & Sprigg, C. A., Managing and Preventing Violence to Lone Workers: Case studies, Health & Safety Laboratory, 2003. HSL Report WPS/03/05.
  17. HSE - Health and Safety Executive (2008). Teachers/other education/welfare. Work-related violence case studies. Retrieved 07 May 2013, from: [7]
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 18.3 ILO - International Labour Organization (no date). Introduction to Occupational Health and Safety, Retrieved 26 February 2013, from: [8]
  19. 19.0 19.1 ETUCE - European Trade Union Committee for Education, Second ETUCE Survey on Cyber-Harassment. Exploring Teacher Union Strategies on the Prevention of Cyber-Harassment in Schools, European Trade Union Committee for Education, Brussels, 2010. Available at: [9]
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 Hoel, H., Sparks, K. & Cooper, C. L., The cost of violence/stress at work and the benefits of a violence/stress-free working environment, International Labour Organization (ILO), Geneva, 2001. Available at: [10]
  21. The Council of the European Communities, Council Directive 89/391/EEC on the introduction of measures to encourage improvements in the safety and health of workers at work (OJ No. L 183, 29.6.89, p. 1). Available at: [11]
  22. Naghieh, A., Montgomery, P., Bonell, C. P., Thompson, M. & Aber, J. L., ‘Organisational interventions for improving wellbeing and reducing work-related stress in teachers (Protocol)’, The Cochrane Library 2013, Issue 1, 2013. Available at: [12]
  23. EB - Education Business (2011). Violence in schools - counting the cost and managing the risks. Retrieved 21 January 2013, from: [13]
  24. Espelage, D., Anderman, E. M., Brown, V. E., Jones, A., Lane, K. L., McMahon, S. D., Reddy, L. A. & Reynolds, C. R., ‘Understanding and Preventing Violence Directed Against Teachers’, American Psychologist, 2013, American Psychological Association, 0003-066X/13/, Vol. 68, No. 2, 000 DOI: 10.1037/a0031307. Available at: [14]
  25. Simonowitz, J., Rigdon, J. & Mannings, J., ‘Workplace violence: Prevention efforts by the occupational health nurse, AAOHN Journal, Vol. 45, No 6, 1997, pp. 305-316.
  26. 26.0 26.1 Nemecek, S., ‘Forestalling violence’, Scientific American, Vol. 279, Iss 3, 1998, pp. 15-17.
  27. Gill, M. & Hearnshaw, S., Personal Safety and Violence in Schools, Research Brief No 21, Department for Education and Employment, 1997. Available at: [15]

Links for further reading

ATL - The Education Union, Violence, threatening behaviour and abuse. Your guide from ATL – the education union, 2011. Available at: [16]

APA - American Psychological Association (2013). Violence Against Teachers: A Silent National Crisis. Retrieved 21 January 2013, from: [17]

ESAC - Education Service Advisory Committee. Violence in the education sector Second edition 1997, reprinted 2003. Available at: [18]

HSE - Health and Safety Executive, Violence in the education sector, 1997. Available at: [19]

HSE - Health and Safety Executive, Working alone: Health and safety guidance on the risks of lone working, 2009. Available at: [20]

HSE - Health and Safety Executive (2008).Teachers/other education/welfare - Work-related violence case studies. Retrieved 21 January 2013, from: [21]

TUC - Trades Union Congress (2013). Violence at Work. Retrieved 21 January 2013, from: [22]