Workplace violence: a social harm perspective

A call for Criminology to use a social harm approach to the workplace, as evidence of violence at work grows

Anthony LloydAnthony Lloyd is Reader in Criminology and Sociology at Teesside University. His research focuses on labour markets and work within an ultra-realist harm framework. His latest book, The Harms of Work (Bristol University Press) is out in paperback in October.

 

According to recent figures from the NHS staff survey and research by Unison, violence against NHS staff continues to rise.  Official figures indicate that nearly 15% of staff surveyed had been subjected to physical violence from patients, patients’ relatives or the public while numerous incidents continue to go unreported.  Although many assaults are clinical in nature and therefore take place in mental health settings, the Health Service Journal/Unison report found violent incidents growing in other settings.  Around one-third of staff reported an assault in the previous twelve months and the report draws a correlation between high levels of violence and NHS trusts with large financial deficits and poor performance on elective waiting times.  Could it reasonably be extrapolated, then, that services stretched to the limit generate frustration and dissatisfaction increasingly manifesting in violent outbursts against staff?

The reports of increasing violence against NHS workers follows growing evidence that school teachers face rising levels of physical and verbal abuse from pupils and parents.  Research conducted by NASUWT suggests that one in four teachers experience physical violence from pupils on a weekly basis, including being shoved, barged, hit, punched and kicked.  Almost half of the 5,000 teachers surveyed reported being verbally threatened by pupils. In 2016/17, nearly 750 pupils were permanently excluded for violence against an adult whilst almost 27,000 were given fixed period exclusions for a physical assault on an adult.

Police officers, prison staff and, increasingly, fire fighters are routinely assaulted in the line of work.  In 2017-18, one in five police officers were assaulted in the line of duty with 8,500 prison officers assaulted in the same period.  According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), 694,000 incidents of violence were recorded in UK workplaces in 2017-18 alone with 374,000 adults experiencing violence at work in that period, 41% of which reported injuries.

These reports and research show that workplace violence is prevalent across a range of occupations with employees often facing threats, intimidation and assault during the course of their work.  Criminology has a track record of investigating violent workplaces (Gill et al, 2002; Martin et al, 2012; Schindeler, 2013).  It is crucial that criminology continue to investigate violence in all arenas, including the workplace.  However, it is also vital to heed Slavoj Žižek’s (2008) warning that physical or subjective violence often masks or distracts from more pervasive and invidious acts of ‘systemic violence’ which underpin neoliberal political economy.  A focus on ‘spectacular’ violence should not detract from the wider violence inflicted upon individuals, communities and institutions through the normal functioning of capitalism.

In my work on service economy employees (Lloyd, 2018a; 2018b; 2019), I observed and interviewed call centre workers, retail employees, hospitality workers, couriers, bar staff and fast-food workers.  While physical violence was not observed and very rarely reported by contacts, verbal abuse from customers was endemic and routine while bullying, harassment and abuse from co-workers and supervisors was frequently reported.  However, the picture that emerged was also one of short-term or zero-hour contracts, minimum wage work, targets and performance management, inflexible work rotas, pressure, stress, instability and the sort of workplace precarity regularly cited within the sociology of work literature (Standing, 2011).

Analysing this research from a social harm perspective opens up the normal functioning of labour markets to a critique that highlights numerous problematic practices and, importantly, absences.

The social harm literature continues to struggle with the fundamental question of ‘harm from what?’ (Pemberton, 2016; Yar, 2012; Hillyard and Tombs, 2004; Raymen, 2019).  What harm occurs when employment contracts increasingly favour the employer over the employee?  What harm is inflicted on individuals and communities through austerity measures?  What harm do we suffer through climate change?  The debate around harm’s ontological grounding continues but my contribution, from an ultra-realist perspective (Hall and Winlow, 2015), suggests that harm can be the absence of positive rights that allow individual and collective flourishing.

Following critical realism, ultra-realist criminology posits the probabilistic causal tendencies of absences (Hall and Winlow, 2015).  For example, the absence of a welfare state would undoubtedly engender harmful consequences for individuals and families.  In this case, the absence of stability was evident through the presence of zero-hour contracts, on-demand work, short-term contracts, ‘flexible’ work arrangements that mostly favoured management, low pay, and often inflexible shifts.  The absence of protection was evident through the presence of unpaid ‘work trials’, failure to pay the National Minimum Wage, regular evidence of physical and mental health problems.  The absence of ethical responsibility for the other was evident in the presence of management bullying, colleague harassment, customer abuse and the ‘special liberty’ (Hall, 2012) or sense of competitive entitlement to act in one’s own interests regardless of consequence or damage to co-workers and employees.  The willingness to harm others is intimately connected to competitive individualism.  Within this theoretical framework, absences have consequences and systemic violence damages far worse than subjective violence.

If we return to the earlier examples of hospital and school violence and consider systemic violence, we see wider harms at work.  The same NHS staff survey that reported significant levels of violence also confirmed that 3 in 5 staff work additional unpaid hours, almost 40% reported feeling unwell due to work-related stress, 56% admitted working while not feeling well enough to perform their duties, 45% felt managers did not ask their opinions, 30% considered leaving their organisation.  One-third suggested they could not provide the level of care for patients that they aspired to, 20% reported bullying and harassment from colleagues and over 40% could not say they looked forward to going to work.

These figures indicate significant issues beyond the threat of physical violence.  Like all public sector organisations, the NHS has been subject to austerity, staff shortages, to the implementation of neoliberal managerialism, particularly the directive for efficiency, productivity and value for money, and to outsourcing and privatisation (Pollock, 2004; Davis et al, 2015).  The staff survey results indicate an absence of protection, stability and ethical responsibility for the other that requires further investigation but seems to suggest that positive rights or flourishing are lacking in a sector that demands more with less, stretches services to breaking point and ramps up dissatisfaction, from both employees and service users.  It is within this context that violent outbursts exist.

The workplace must continue as a site of criminological investigation but should also approach such research from a social harm perspective (Scott, 2017).  Widening the angle of vision to incorporate systemic violence as well as brutal outbursts of physical violence allows us to see the myriad harms of work that contextualise subjective assaults on doctors, nurses and teachers.  Many of our workplaces impede flourishing and well-being, both through subjective violence against the person and the systemic violence of neoliberal ideology.  As neoliberal capitalism continues to erode working conditions, conditions of employment and the social relations between employer, employee and consumer, the absences that emerge generate multiple harms, perpetrated by and against the individual.  It is incumbent upon Criminology to see the whole picture.

 

References

Davis, J., Lister, J. and Wrigley, D. (2015) NHS For Sale: Myths, Lies and Deception, London: Merlin Press.

Gill, M., Fisher, B. And Bowie, V. (2002) Violence at Work: Causes, patterns and prevention, (Eds) Cullompton: Willan.

Hall, S. and Winlow, S. (2015) Revitalizing Criminological Theory: Towards a New Ultra-Realism, London: Routledge.

Hall, S. (2012) Theorizing Crime and Deviance: A New Perspective, London: Sage.

Hillyard, P. and Tombs, S. (2004) ‘Beyond Criminology?’ in Hillyard, P., Pantazis, C., Tombs, S. and Gordon, D. (Eds) Beyond Criminology: Taking Harm Seriously, London: Pluto Press.

Lloyd, A. (2018a) The Harms of Work. Bristol: Policy Press.

Lloyd, A. (2018b) “Working for free: Illegal employment practices, ‘off the books’ work and the continuum of legality within the service economy’, Trends in Organised Crime. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12117-018-9351-x

Lloyd, A. (2019) “Harm at Work: Bullying and special liberty in the retail sector”, Critical Criminology. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10612-019-09445-9

Martin, D., Mackenzie, N. and Healy, J. (2012) ‘Balancing risk and professional identity, secondary school teachers’ narratives of violence’, Criminology and Criminal Justice, 13(4), 398-414.

Pemberton, S. (2016) Harmful Societies, Bristol: Policy Press.

Pollock, A.M. (2004) NHS Plc: The Privatisation of Our Health Care, London: Verso.

Raymen, T. (2019) ‘The Enigma of Social Harm and the Barrier of Liberalism: Why Zemiology Needs a Theory of the Good’, Justice, Power and Resistance, 3(1) 134-163.

Schindeler, E. (2013) ‘Workplace violence: Extending the boundaries of criminology’, Theoretical Criminology, 18(3), 371-385.

Scott, S. (2017) Labour Exploitation and Work-Based Harm, Bristol: Policy Press.

Standing, G. (2011) The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, London: Bloomsbury.

Yar, M. (2012) ‘Critical criminology, critical theory and social harm’, in Hall, S. and Winlow, S. (Eds.) New Directions in Criminological Theory, London: Routledge.

Žižek, S. (2008) Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, London: Profile Books.

 

Contact

Dr. Anthony Lloyd, Reader in Criminology, Teesside University

Email Anthony.Lloyd@tees.ac.uk

Twitter @lloyd_a1

Copyright free images courtesy of author and  Flickr