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Handling violence in the workplace

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Police officers, firefighters, miners, soldiers, construction workers. When we think of jobs that are fraught with danger, these are often the ones that spring to mind.

Yet many of us know that staff at nonprofits are habitual victims of violence in the workplace, experiencing verbal, emotional or physical harassment from clients or family members of clients they serve. Even though a good deal of this goes underreported, a recent Statistics Canada study revealed that one-third of all workplace violent incidents involved a victim who was working in social assistance or health care services.

"I don't think I've ever gone into an organization where they've said, 'That has never happened here'," says Ross Arrowsmith, a consultant who delivers workplace violence prevention seminars across Alberta and edits the website "It doesn't matter how large or small, when we talk about abusive behaviour, threats, acts of intimidation and harassment, every organization has experienced some of those elements at some time in their history."

The nature of violence at nonprofits

While serious physical attacks and altercations do happen, the kind of violence experienced by staff working at nonprofits is primarily verbal: shouting, swearing, name calling, hostility, hysterical crying.

Branka Matijasic is the coordinator of intake services at BC's Legal Services Society. For four years, she worked on the front line as an intake worker, assessing eligibility for legal aid in person and over the phone. When dealing with family law cases that are typically fraught with emotion, she says verbal abuse is a regular occurrence.

"Quite often they swear at us, they get mad for us asking all the questions that we are asking," she says. "After you finish with a call you feel exhausted and abused, because you're trying to help and you're getting this negative response from the client."

For staffers at the Ontario SPCA, verbal abuse is frequent, but they need to prepare for potential physical violence as well. Chief Inspector Connie Mallory says that in addition to crisis intervention training, staff in the field (who work alone) are equipped with bite sticks, animal repellent spray, puncture-resistant body armour and hands-free earpieces linked to GPS positioning systems.

"Because we don't know what's beyond the driveway or beyond that door, we always have to be prepared and look out for our safety," she says. "Safety is something that you always need to practice, and review, and enhance."

Andrea Vollans, YWCA Vancouver's legal educator, helps clients (mainly single moms) with their legal issues. In many cases, Vollans' clients are dealing with abusive ex-partners, who threaten to subpoena or sue her, or make indirect threats to her safety. The frightening part for Vollans is not knowing when someone might follow through with a threat.

"How many actual [violent] events that happen are small, but it's the perception that violence could happen," she says. "It's the feeling that the risk is there."

Drawing the line of workplace violence

Defining what constitutes workplace violence for staff at nonprofits is a tricky task. Though staff may be intellectually aware that they are being harassed, they may be reluctant to identify such behaviour as abusive, since the nature of their work is supportive.

And at what point do you consider behaviour from a client to be intentionally abusive, versus someone who is lashing out because he or she is unable to cope with the severity of a situation? This is a question staff at nonprofits grapple with every day.

Lisa Rupert, manager of YWCA Munroe House, has more than 15 years of experience helping women who are leaving abusive relationships. During the course of her career, she's experienced a few acts of physical violence from clients or their ex-partners. But most often, she deals with women who are angry, frustrated or scared about their situations, and they regularly take that anger out on her.

"You have to set a boundary about what's acceptable behaviour and what's not," she says, "but you also want to be supportive if you know they're really going through something."

There are also individual differences in defining violence: what is offensive or threatening to one staff member may not bother another. Many workers simply see abuse as part of the job, especially after they've been in the field for a long time, which is why violence amongst nonprofits is underreported.

Brushing off violence can create additional risks, however. Arrowsmith advises that violent behaviours need to be addressed in the workplace immediately, before they have an opportunity to progress to something more serious.

"When you ignore their aggressive behaviour, there's certainly a high risk of them escalating that behaviour," he says. "Let's recognize what these behaviours are, intervene as soon as you see them occurring, and hopefully you're preventing a situation from escalating."

But is it always that cut and dried? Vollans says while it's important to address abusive behaviour, there's a danger of the pendulum swinging too far on the side of caution.

"You can't respond to everything with, 'Oh my god, I feel threatened, I have to call the police and lock up the office now'," she says. "Every job has a risk implied in it. There's always something, and for us, it's just threats or anger."

However, it doesn't always have to be this way for every nonprofit. How one responds to anger and abuse, both in the moment, and on an organizational level, can have an impact in reducing such behaviour. Michelle Fortin, executive director of Watari in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, says the organization sets a tone with clients where they must be as responsible for everyone's safety as staff. This has resulted in no violent incidents.

"Just because someone is wounded or damaged, it does not mean that they can't function respectfully," she says. "I think there's a lot of people who think about all these poor people on the Downtown Eastside and they expect less from them. If you expect less from people, that's what they'll give you."

Trusting your instincts

Nonprofit staff members employ sound judgment, caution, diplomacy and composure when handling workplace violence. Quite often, they make swift decisions to keep both themselves and their clients safe — and to do this successfully, they must have excellent instincts.

Employees at Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) deal with a wide range of potentially violent situations — from patients lashing out because they're in pain, to someone who is upset about waiting in the ER for several hours, to a patient's family member who is angry about the level of care provided. Rob Senghera, VCH's manager of safety prevention and wellness, says hospitals rely on the prudence of their staff to address violence effectively.

"So much of [handling violence] is personal judgment and professional discretion," he says. "Each case is its own case, and you really have to be familiar with the environment and the types of clients that you deal with to respond appropriately."

The SPCA's Connie Mallory can recall a time when her intuition possibly saved her life. Shortly after removing one of two dogs from a home (where she was attacked by one of the animals as she did so), she got an anonymous phone call claiming a dog at that same address was being beaten.

"There was something that just wasn't sitting well with me," she says, "so I contacted the police and said, 'My gut is telling me that I'm being set up here for injury, and I feel uncomfortable about going.' And sure enough, that was the case. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the dog; I was being directed to go and check that out only to be harmed by the dog."

And the more employers let staff use their intuition, the more likely it is they will keep safe.

"I think if you give your staff that level of trust, it enables them to actually go with their gut instincts and their feelings," Rupert says. "If they don't feel trusted, they might be doing what they think they have to do to keep their job, rather than what they think they have to do to keep safe."

What clients truly want

Clients, no matter their level of crisis, want their feelings validated and to be heard with empathy and compassion. When nonprofit staff offer this kind of communication, it can prevent situations from escalating.

"The main thing is to listen to the clients. They want someone to listen to their problems," says Matijasic. "We teach our intake workers to take time and listen to the client and see what the issues are. Once clients see that someone is paying attention and they are being treated as a human being, that really works quite well."

Sondi Bruner is a Vancouver-based freelance journalist and holistic nutrition student. Find out more about her writing services at, and explore vegetarian, gluten-free and dairy-free recipes on her food blog, The Copycat Cook.

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