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The abuse faced by customer-facing employees

While the thought of going back to school may cue the collective groan of thousands of students across the country, perhaps it’s teachers’ complaints we should pay close attention to.

Long hours, recess duty, dealing with playground squabbles are some of the obvious reasons teachers might be dreading the start of the school year. But several studies suggest there could be much more serious reasons behind their apprehension.

Teachers are much more likely to experience violence than the average Australian, according to research from the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education, Principal Health and Wellbeing survey 2018. The results pooled answers from 778 principals and teachers from Catholic schools in Australia and found that not only are they facing a high prevalence of violence, they are also working more than 51 hours per week during the school term and less than 31 hours during holiday periods.


Image: Institute for Positive Psychology and Education, Principal Health and Wellbeing survey 2018

AccessEAP, a not-for-profit corporate psychology organisation, has recently found that one in ten Australian teachers are considering resigning. This could be due to a multitude of reasons, but an increasing amount of violence, paired with increased stress levels and anxiety from overworking could be to blame for up to 50 per cent of teachers walking out the door within their first five years on the job.

“There are many more pressures on today’s teachers including the impact of new technology and social media, the rise of reported mental health issues amongst students, a lack of resources, increasingly demanding or aggressive parents and escalating levels of classroom violence. Consequently, the modern teaching environment can be detrimental to the mental and even physical wellbeing of educators,” says Marcela Slepica, director of clinical services at AccessEAP.

In 2017, there were 595 recorded acts of violence against teachers – which was three times as high as 2014 – and an estimated 400 workers compensation claims from violence thought to be committed by pupils. The problem escalated so much so that teachers were threatening industrial action in 2018.

Northern Territory teachers are also facing the brunt of violent acts with the branch secretary for the Australian Education Union NT, Adam Lampe, recently saying it has reached “critical levels”.

In a report from NT News (paywall), Lampe recounts disturbing cases of parents screaming, harassing and swearing at teachers.

“There has definitely been a shift in attitudes over recent years, now parents feel much more entitled and there’s a general lack of respect. You’d never encounter that in any other profession, if a doctor made a diagnosis for your child you wouldn’t yell at them for it,” he says.

It’s not just in our schools

While most will agree with Lampe’s sentiment, there’s one point worth digging deeper into, that it’s not occurring in other professions. It definitely is.

Retail and fast food workers have recently been sharing their stories of violence and abuse at the hands of customers. One McDonalds worker in the US recently had a gun pulled on them because the customer “was not served hot sauce with his french fries” and another employee at an Adelaide fast-food store reported being spat on and receiving death threats.

Towards the end of last year the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA) surveyed thousands of fast food workers and found that 87 per cent had experienced abuse or aggression at work.

The results sparked an awareness campaign titled ‘No One Deserves a Serve at Work’ which is calling for community support to end this aggressive behaviour. It doesn’t just stop at fast-food chains though, this client-facing abuse is widespread.

The SDA were prompted to launch another campaign, ‘Don’t Bag Retail Staff’, in response to aggressive behaviour towards supermarket staff when the single use plastic bags were banned in June last year. One man in Western Australia is reported to have grabbed a Woolworth’s staff member by the throat in anger while others presented staff with reusable bags filled with needles, used-nappies, razor blades, mice and cockroaches in protest.

This behaviour is just scratching at the surface of the barrage of abuse that Australian employees face at work each day. Think of the bar staff assaulted by booze-filled patrons, the social workers abused by clients, or the countless stories of workplace bullying.

What’s the solution?

Employee health and safety should be a top priority for all employers. But how can they protect workers beyond training managers or installing adequate surveillance (or providing employees with self-defence training)?

The answer could lie in training your employees on how to defuse a tense situation. When faced with an angry customer, or pupil, it can be easy to jump into ‘fight or flight’ mode.

When in this mode, “the body automatically responds to a threat without conscious thought. As the threat increases, a person’s ability to reason diminishes. Angry people experience the same phenomenon because anger is a reaction to a real or perceived threat. Angry people talk and act without thinking,” says Jack Schafer, a behavioural analyst and former special agent for the FBI.

He says it can take up to 20 minutes for the body to return to normal after activating “fight or flight” mode and that’s important to keep in mind for those working in customer-facing roles. You’re unlikely to “get through” to someone during the initial stages of anger, it’s more about calming them down and ensuring everyone’s safety.

Schafer also says the venting stage of anger is important and shouldn’t be interrupted but rather met with “empathic statements” such as “I understand that you’re upset about XYZ…

“Venting is not a singular event, rather, a series of events. The initial venting is typically the strongest. This allows angry people to “burn off” most of their anger at the onset of the exchange. Subsequent venting becomes increasingly less intense, unless fuel is added to reignite the anger,” he says.

Of course there’s a difference between a customer expressing anger verbally versus someone who gets physically violent over a cold hamburger, but Schafer’s 20 minute rule seems sound for most situations. Take a deep breath, go for a walk around the block or give yourself some space from the conflict, because “if you remain calm, your cortex will send a signal to your limbic system to dampen the fight/flight response allowing you to develop well thought out survival strategies.”

Give your leaders the skills to handle difficult situations and respond positively to workplace conflict through Ignition Training’s Conflict Management course. Enquire now for in-house training.

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