A cure for aggro phobia

It's not only police officers and welfare workers who confront violence - anyone who deals with the public is at risk, says HESTER LACEY

During the past 14 years I have been assaulted seven times," says a beleaguered teacher in a new book, Work-Related Violence. "Once with a knife, once with a stiletto, once with an air rifle (I was shot in the chest), once when a pupil fed gas into my classroom when I was teaching, twice when pupils tried to assault me with their fists and once when an ex-pupil tried twice to run me over with a car."

Teachers aren't the only profession to run the risk of assault every time they turn up to work. According to research carried out at Nottingham University, many more professions are vulnerable - other than the obvious ones like the police - and levels of reported violence "grossly understate" the size of the problem.

A report released by the Trades Union Congress in January backs up the findings. Called Violent Times, it suggested that one in five workers are likely to be attacked or verbally abused annually. Young women are particularly at risk. Eleven per cent of women aged between 25 and 34 had suffered a physical attack last year compared with six per cent of men in the same age group.

Phil Leather, lecturer in the department of psychology at Nottingham University, is one of the authors of Work-Related Violence. The university's Violence Research Group, which he heads, is one of the only academic units to be actively investigating the problem. Virtually anyone who deals with the public in a situation where the atmosphere may become pressurised or heated, he says, may experience violence of some kind.

"The traditional view is that certain groups are obviously at risk - security guards, firefighters, the police. And they are at around 17 times greater risk than the average. Health and welfare workers are at around four times the average. But teachers, publicans, airport check-in staff, postal staff, garage staff, staff at take-away food outlets, transport workers and taxi drivers are also at risk."

Violence, he says, has become uglier. "There is an increase in the use of weapons, because of drugs and alcohol. The nature of violence is becoming more extreme." And it is not only knives and guns that are becoming more prevalent. "It isn't just the really horrible incidents. A death is obviously dreadful, but for every death there are endless assaults, for every assault there is intimidation and verbal abuse. Psychological damage can go on after physical scars have healed."

He believes that violence at work can be reduced if staff are taught how to deal with it. "You don't pour water on a chip pan fire - all fires aren't the same. Violence is like fire, there are different ways of dealing with it. If thieves get past a security guard, the use of violence is instrumental. Here the only answer is target-hardening - making the target tougher to hit. But in other cases, violence is a result of unhappy interaction between employee and client. Here it is a case of awareness and conflict resolution."

He gives an example: the airline check-in staff who cheerily tell a passenger, "You thought you were going to Tel Aviv tonight, but you're not!" with an unwritten subtext of "Hard luck!" which makes the unlucky traveller's blood boil. To avoid violence, he says, the first thing to do is give information: give a clear picture of what's likely to happen, then provide some creature comforts during the wait. "Sometimes," he says, "you can't change the situation but you can change how people feel about it."

Courses on how to manage violence at work are a solution companies are increasingly turning to as they become more aware of the problem. "In the last few years there has been a lot of interest," says Phil Leather. "There are consultants who specialise in conflict resolution or violence awareness. Other courses, some more reputable than others, provide physical restraint techniques."

He does not himself recommend sending staff out equipped with martial arts black belts, but does suggest some simple body language techniques. If someone is very angry, don't approach them from behind. Never touch them - physical contact of any kind can be a flashpoint. Don't raise your hands. Stand at 45 degrees to them, not full-face. And don't let yourself get backed into a corner from which there is no easy escape.

One company that already has an anti-violence strategy in place is Allied Domecq, the retail and leisure giants who own the Firkin pubs chain and Big Steak pubs. "We're not teaching our licensees the finer points of hai karate, but we are taking a proactive stance," says Jeff Dixon, Allied Domecq's head of training.

The company works closely with the Violence Research Group at Nottingham University, in an approach that combines academic analysis with practical techniques. "To take it to extremes, if the team at Nottingham were to analyse our reports on violent incidents and find that licensees with beards experience more violence than those without, we might consider looking at having all beards shaved off," says Dixon. (Up to now, no such evidence has been discovered.)

Dixon agrees with Leather that the key point is spotting and defusing potential flashpoints before any trouble starts. Allied Domecq staff are trained to spot warning body language. "We are teaching our managers to be aware of customers rather than serving them and letting them pass out of orbit," he explains. "The training has led to a significant fall in violent incidents and it helps the managers feel the company cares about them." The company is extending its training programme to include drugs awareness.

Leather believes this kind of culture is essential, and not just to protect employees. His team has been receiving increasing numbers of requests to appear as expert witnesses in cases where victims of violence are suing their employers for negligence: "We don't actually appear as witnesses, but the requests come in. We haven't seen a huge amount of litigation as yet, but I would guess that it's coming."

'Work-Related Violence: Assessment and Intervention' is edited by Phil Leather, Carol Brady, Claire Lawrence, Diane Beale and Tom Cox (Routledge, pounds 17.99).

ROLL WITH THE PUNCHES

SITUATIONS TO AVOID

Remember that aggressive behaviour often stems from a person trying to "save face". Stop situations escalating.

Be careful around people who have been drinking. Alcohol makes people more likely to interpret others' behaviour as negative. Violence can later be blamed on drink (or drugs) and aggressors can dissociate themselves from their behaviour.

Avoid allowing people to remain anonymous. If someone's identity is unknown, they feel less obliged to behave in a socially acceptable way.

Be cautious around groups. These increase anonymity and reduce individual blame, guilt and responsibility.

DEALING WITH CONFLICT

Keep customers updated on any situation that might inconvenience them: this helps calm people.

With conflict between customers, avoid invading "personal space". Convey that you're taking the problem seriously.

Beware of physical intervention. Never touch an angry person - even a gentle hand on the arm can be taken as a signal to attack. Don't take a confrontational stance - stand at an angle, not full on. Don't get backed into a corner.

Managers should implement a system for reporting violent incidents, whether physical or verbal. An attack can lead to loss of confidence or even post-traumatic stress disorder.

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