For everyone The Law & You: Tackling the rise in workplace violence

The AEU is renewing its focus on work-related violence following a reported rise in physical and non-physical forms of occupational violence, writes AEU industrial officer UMEYA CHAUDHURI.

AEU members have experienced increasing levels of work-related violence in recent years. It has become an acute issue for the AEU, and one that may require new industrial strategies in order to deal with it effectively.

The term ‘work-related violence’ tends to conjure acts of physical violence. However, it is important to appreciate that work-related violence is not limited to physical violence. According to WorkSafe:

Work-related violence involves incidents in which a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work. This definition covers a broad range of actions and behaviours that can create a risk to the health and safety of employees. It includes behaviour sometimes described as acting out, challenging behaviour and behaviours of concern.
School leaders, teachers, and support staff in all sectors are exposed to threats of violence, abuse, and excessive and unreasonable demands – often made in the most vile and intemperate manner.

Principal health and wellbeing is a major concern. Since 2018, the Department of Education has attempted to address principal health and wellbeing through the various measures under its Principal Health and Wellbeing Strategy. However, in June 2023, a Victorian Auditor-General report, Principal Health and Wellbeing, found that these measures have not improved the situation for school leaders.

While workload is the main determinant of poor health outcomes for principals, the Australian Catholic University’s annual Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey identified alarming increases in occupational violence when compared to the previous year. According to the 2022 data, 48.8% of participants received threats of violence (a 4.5% increase), 44% experienced physical violence (a 4.6% increase), and 49.7% experienced ‘gossip and slander’ (up 4.3%).

A 2020 study found that 84.5% of school teachers had experienced targeted bullying and harassment by a student or a parent.

Teachers victims of targeted bullying and harrassment

Another study in Western Australia surveyed 56 primary and secondary teachers. It found that 69.7% of teachers experienced direct violence at least once between 2018 and 2020. Teachers in government schools experienced greater levels of violence compared to their independent and Catholic sector colleagues.

A 2020 LaTrobe/Swinburne study of 1,213 teachers working across all school sectors in Australia’s eastern states and territories found that 84.5% had experienced “targeted bullying and harassment” by a student or parent.

One of the most under-reported forms of work-related violence for teachers is sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is defined as being unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, in circumstances where a reasonable person would have anticipated that the individual would be offended, humiliated, or intimidated.

Common examples include making sexually suggestive jokes, asking intrusive questions about a person’s private life, and inappropriate physical contact. A single incident can constitute sexual harassment.

While workload is the main determinant of poor health outcomes for principals, an ACU survey identified alarming increases in occupational violence.

Stepping in and speaking up to stop violence at work

We all have responsibilities to ensure safe systems of work and workplaces under work health and safety laws. A critical mechanism to create cultural change in a workplace is through bystander intervention. A bystander is a person who observes work-related violence first-hand or hears about it subsequently. Bystanders can also be adversely impacted by work-related violence.

Types of bystander intervention could include pre-arranging a phone call to interrupt a meeting if a colleague feels uncomfortable with a one-to-one meeting; assisting a person to make a complaint; and supporting victim-survivors who come forward.

However, employers need to take a more proactive role in training staff about sexual harassment and bystander intervention as well as creating a workplace culture that treats complaints seriously. Employers in all the AEU’s sectors need to better manage and address the non-physical forms of violence being experienced by AEU members.

Those workplaces that have had success in minimising work-related violence say this was achieved by having a trained and active health and safety rep, utilising consultative avenues, and leaders or managers working proactively with staff to address workplace hazards.

Sometimes, industrial and legal solutions are also necessary to address work-related violence. This will be an area of renewed focus for the AEU’s industrial team in 2024.

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