Australia
20 September 2021 | Minutes to read: 3

Managing aggressive patients – an employer’s moral and legal duty to their staff

By Paul Copeland

It is well documented that the Australian healthcare industry is not only the largest industry in Australia but also the most subject to aggression and violence. As a healthcare worker in Australia, you are up to 12 times more likely to experience violence and/or abuse in your workplace. This is especially true if you work in emergency departments, mental health or with patients suffering dementia.

Employers not only have a moral obligation to protect their staff but also a legal obligation to do so under the Work Health And Safety Act 2011 (Cth). Paraphrasing Division 2, clause 19 of the Act: “A person undertaking a business must ensure so far is reasonably practicable the health and safety of workers engaged in that business”.

Private practices across the nation have had an uphill battle over the last 24 months grappling with the ever-changing landscape caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. This impact has seen the healthcare industry witness a change in behavioural patterns from patients that has unfortunately led to a significant increase of abuse from their everyday interactions in the workplace. For the majority of people, the idea of abusing someone whose reason for interacting with you is to it help you, is unfathomable. However, the growing number of incidents, highlights that this is unfortunately not the case.

The incidence of abuse in the workplace is not something that we should avoid or otherwise minimise. Rather, we need to recognise the areas of risk in our practice and put control measures in place to protect our staff and business.

Common forms of aggressive behaviour demonstrated by patients in private practice include:

  • Aggressive, demanding and inappropriate phone calls
  • Aggressive emails and messages
  • Verbal abuse and
  • Physical abuse in reception and consulting rooms.

The growing incidents of abuse and the underlying “fear” of an incident is causing strain on the organisations we work for along with the mental and physical health of staff. Where there is a lack of training and awareness in an organisation on how to deal with different types of abuse, this can have a direct impact on staff morale, cohesion and productivity.

More importantly, the individual employee can also experience many negative impacts due to to abuse and violence. Aside from the physical impacts, employees can experience a lack of confidence, avoidance of work or duties manifesting in an increase in sick days taken, anxiety and depression.

Whilst working in healthcare, we come across patients with diverse and complex needs. As a result of these needs, we can be presented with challenging and unpredictable behaviour from patients and those supporting them.

Employers are now becoming aware of the vital need for adequate training for their staff on how to communicate with patients to prevent or diffuse an escalation. It is important for frontline staff to feel their employers are making their safety a priority and they feel valued and supported in their workplace. This can be achieved by arming them with knowledge from adequate training in effective communication and de-escalation skills. Staff can be taught many other practical skills like using body language to de-escalate a situation, as well as processes and procedures to follow to protect themselves and the people they work for. By upskilling staff, we can increase their confidence in the workplace.

At William Buck, we work closely with Health Industry Employment Services, an employment services specialist which has recognised a gap in adequate training for healthcare and frontline staff and offers a range of customised packages to suit your workplace, using highly skilled trainers with real-world experiences to work with you, your doctors and your staff.

For more information, contact your local William Buck Health Advisor or Health Industry Employment Services directly.

Managing aggressive patients – an employer’s moral and legal duty to their staff

Paul Copeland

Paul is a Director in our Business Advisory division and is the national lead for William Buck's Health Services group. Paul has extensive knowledge in relation to the medical and dental industries, covering all areas of general and specialist practices and assisting them with their accounting, tax and business advisory requirements.

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