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Healthcare | Occupational Health & Safety

Renewed focus on nurse and midwife safety needed during COVID-19, says ANMF President

30 Oct 2020, by Amy Sarcevic

If you work in the healthcare sector, you are likely no stranger to the issue of workplace violence.

According to the World Health Organisation between 8 and 38 percent of health workers will experience physical assault at some point in their careers, and a significantly greater number will be exposed to it.

This year though ANMF Federal President, Sally-Anne Jones, is concerned the matter may have escalated during the pandemic response, as nurses and midwives enact strict policies, including patient visitor restrictions.

“Nurses and midwives regularly face abuse in the course of their jobs, whether that’s physical violence or more insidious personal attacks,” said Ms. Jones ahead of the Safe & Secure Hospital & Healthcare Worker Conference.

“With visitors now being restricted to hospitals in some parts of Australia, we are seeing an increase in aggression. Nurses and midwives are often the ones who tell the families and friends of patients that they can’t come to the hospital and support their loved one. It’s a necessary measure to curb the pandemic spread, but understandably causes stress on all sides.”

In the context of maternity, visitor restrictions have caused distress among community and advocacy groups, with a global hashtag #butnotmaternity circulating the internet in recent weeks. The restrictions mean that women, in some parts of the world, are only allowed to have birthing partners for the final stage of delivery, leaving women without the emotional support they had planned for. This distress is often directed in anger at healthcare workers.

“We tend to think of violence in health as being an Emergency Department issue and forget that it can happen in all parts of the healthcare system. It isn’t just drug and alcohol affected patients, or those presenting with acute mental illness, that can cause problems,” said Ms Jones.

“Aggression is present in general wards, maternity, paediatrics, dementia units and even ICU. There are many patient, staff, process, system and environmental factors that contribute to the escalation of aggression in hospitals, and COVID-19 has intensified these.”

Although a number of measures at the state and federal level have sought to address the issue of workplace violence in healthcare settings, Ms. Jones does not believe existing statistics capture the breadth or scale of the problem. This could mean policies don’t either.

“Serious assaults usually always go on record, but smaller ones often don’t, and verbal abuse rarely does. This low-level, frequent exposure to workplace violence can do just as much damage over a long term period. If you get called names enough times, it takes a toll on the psyche,” said Ms. Jones.

“Existing policies address this aspect of workplace violence, but I am concerned workers are slow to adopt the actions, and consistent reporting must be a priority.”

Despite the collegiality and increased cooperation reported by nurses and midwives during COVID-19, it is not uncommon for them to identify everyday interactions with co-workers as being ‘aggressive’ in nature. This could manifest as tone of speech, lack of pleasantries, impatience, intolerance or lack of kindness.

Whilst not bullying per se, the impact of being exposed to this type of behaviour needs further exploration as part of a broader agenda for hospitals, with a view to eliminating all levels of occupational violence.

To this end, Ms. Jones advocates a renewed focus on workplace health and safety, including ramping up tailored mental health and wellbeing initiatives, to support those in the caring profession.

“I think it’s important to continually re-assess occupational violence in healthcare, as it isn’t going away. In fact it is so pervasive that it seems to be normalised, with nurses and midwives often viewing it just ‘part of their job’. ” said Ms. Jones.

“Whoever would have thought that hospitals were considered a dangerous workplace? If we don’t maintain commitment to continually raising the pervading epidemic of occupational violence in healthcare, we will fail the community by not attracting and keeping the nursing and midwifery workforce it needs,” she concluded.

Sally-Anne Jones is Federal President of the Australian Nursing & Midwifery Federation. She is also a Nursing Director in a Metropolitan hospital in Queensland and has keen interests in standards and practice; leadership and safety.

Join Sally-Anne Jones for more discussion on how to tackle the issue of occupational violence in healthcare settings at the Safe & Secure Hospitals & Healthcare Worker Conference – held as a virtual event on December 1-2.

Learn more and register.

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