Headshot of Emily Killham, director on the people analytics team at Perceptyx.

When you talk to healthcare workers on the front lines, one truth keeps surfacing: their workplaces can often be very dangerous.

Many home care workers already know this through their own experiences, but new research backs up that reality with some grim numbers –— 92% of all healthcare workers have either experienced or witnessed violence from a patient or patient’s caregiver in the past month. It’s an epidemic that is often normalized by administrators but can have far reaching effects beyond the immediate impacts of the violence itself. In 2018 it was reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics that 73% of all nonfatal workplace violence incidents involved healthcare workers.

The state of workplace violence

In healthcare settings, especially post-pandemic, we’re seeing many reports of workers enduring violence from the patients they serve. Physical violence is most common in hospitals and long-term care facilities, but the severity varies by care setting. While hospital staff experience the most severe physical violence, long-term care staff experience more frequent incidents of violence: More than half of long-term care workers were assaulted in April, with 15% of those attacks serious enough to warrant a call for help. But in hospitals 4 out of 10 workers were physically attacked, and half of them required someone else’s intervention. 

One of the safer places for healthcare workers is in the home healthcare setting. Nearly two-thirds of home healthcare workers reported being exposed to violence in general (including verbal assaults), while only a third said they experienced any physical violence. Even for positions in home healthcare that might be expected to be more dangerous, like nursing or healthcare support, the same results were reported.

But it’s important to read between the numbers and understand that just being around violence, whether you are the victim or not, can have significant mental health effects. A recent study showed that nurses were two to four times more likely to report high levels of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression and burnout. Limiting the trauma for all healthcare workers and helping them build resilience is a big challenge, and solving it will take some creative thinking and continuous conversations with the workers themselves.

We’re in the middle of a healthcare worker shortage with no end in sight for recruitment and retention. Reducing the fear — and the PTSD that may deter someone from signing up for a healthcare position — may be the single most important factor in solving the recruitment crisis.  

Here are two major areas you can put more resources into: 

Advocate for protective legislation – While there is a pending bill introduced in May by Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) already passed by the House, more urgency has to be put into legislative efforts at the federal and state levels. The bill goes a long way in protecting workers by setting clear OSHA standards, standardizing reporting, and funding support resources.

Create a regular listening strategy – It’s impossible to effectively address your healthcare workers’ concerns without transparent, open listening channels that give you feedback on at least a quarterly basis. It’s best not to rely only on an annual census survey — you need regular feedback instruments, including exit surveys, crowdsourcing or interactive brainstorming sessions and small-group peer discussions. Make sure you have an action plan in place that is ready to be executed once you see areas of concern like spikes in reported violence or increased signs of stress in your employees.

Healthcare workers are known to suffer from burnout stemming from long hours, lack of proper staffing and the overall emotional toll from the pandemic. The recent uptick in violence reported at work only adds to that burden, increasing the urgency to come up with a quick solution. Let’s listen to those on the front lines and hear what they’re facing, making them part of a solution that addresses violence in a way that’s relevant to each facility.

Emily Killham is a director on the people analytics team at Perceptyx. Focused on building better places to work for more than two decades, she has worked closely with organizations in nearly every industry, both global and domestic, ranging in size from less than 100 employees to over 250,000.