Healthcare workers, especially nurses, are less likely to report incidents of workplace violence, including verbal abuse from patients, families, and coworkers, according to a sentinel event alert the Joint Commission released in April.

What Is Workplace Violence?

More than extreme cases of mass attacks, violence can be an everyday pattern involving verbal, written, or physical aggression, assaults, or threats of assaults that can sometimes be overlooked. However, the Joint Commission explained that these acts undermine a culture of safety that workplaces and organizations such as ONS and the American Nurses Association work hard to establish.

How Prevalent Is Violence in Health Care?

Approximately 75% of the nearly 25,000 reported annual workplace assaults occurred in health care and social settings, the Joint Commission cited in the sentinel event alert. Healthcare workers are more than four times as likely to experience workplace violence than people in other occupations.

However, the Joint Commission explained that the actual incidence is likely much higher because of underreporting: studies have shown that only 30% of nurses who’ve experienced violence have actually reported it.

Why Aren’t Nurses Reporting It?

Studies have shown that healthcare workers, including nurses, think that violence comes with the territory and quietly accept it. With verbal abuse especially, nurses may be numbed to this type of behavior from coworkers who engage in bullying or “eating their young,” so they accept it from patients and families as well.

What Can You Do About It?

The Joint Commission pointed out that employers are required to provide a safe workplace, which includes defining acceptable and unacceptable behavior and having a system in place to report it, investigate it, and take action against it. Here are the official actions that the Joint Commission laid out for healthcare institutions.

  1. Clearly define workplace violence and put systems into place across the organization that enable staff to report workplace violence instances, including verbal abuse.
  2. Recognizing that data come from several sources, capture, track, and trend all reports of workplace violence—including verbal abuse and attempted assaults when no harm occurred.
  3. Provide appropriate follow-up and support to victims, witnesses, and others affected by workplace violence, including psychological counseling and trauma-informed care if necessary.
  4. Review each case of workplace violence to determine contributing factors. Analyze data related to workplace violence and worksite conditions to determine priority situations for intervention.
  5. Develop quality improvement initiatives to reduce incidents of workplace violence.
  6. Train all staff, including security, in deescalation, self-defense, and response to emergency codes.
  7. Evaluate workplace violence reduction initiatives.

For more information about ensuring safety in the workplace, read our ONS Voice safety articles.