Australian Ageing AgendaWorkers’ mental health risk highlighted

Travis Holland

Psychological injury sustained from aggressive and violent clients could become the number one occupational health and safety risk for aged care organisations, according to a new industry survey.

Of the 1,059 direct care workers and managers who took part in the online survey, conducted by workplace safety consultants Holland Thomas and Associates, 36 per cent reported experiencing an incident of aggression and/or violence in the past 30 days.

While respondents reported that 9 per cent of these incidents had involved an assault, they said 30 per cent of the incidents resulted in the worker suffering a psychological injury.

Respondents came from sectors including aged care, disability, family and youth, and mental health, however the survey report said that as 52 per cent were from aged care there was “a bias in the results towards the experience of those in aged care.”

Travis Holland, managing director of Holland Thomas and Associates, said that the findings appeared to support the view held among some consultants and insurers that psychological injury will increasingly feature in claims for workers compensation.

“If you look at the exposure some staff are experiencing over the course of a year, two years, a career – it’s a lot of exposure to aggression and that will have a cumulative effect on the individual,” Mr Holland toldAustralian Ageing Agenda.

“More and more, individuals will become aware that there’s avenue for compensation for them. Whether [the claim] is a purely medical function to get help, or whether it’s a dollar function on top of that, to get financial compensation.”

Mr Holland, who consults to aged care organisations, said he has advised clients to ensure appropriate counselling and psychological services are available to staff. In some cases, where organisations have staff exposed to repeated and high levels of aggression or violence, he has advised they implement mandatory periodic counselling for staff.

Other key findings from the survey:
  • Staff who experience incidents of aggression or violence likely to experience multiple incidents: For respondents who reported one or more incident, the average number of incidents was 3.3 compared to 1.2 across all respondents
  • Managers have double the number of incidents: On average, there were 2.2 incidents across all managers and area manager, compared to 1.0 for direct care workers
  • More experienced workers facing more incidents: Respondents with 20 or more years’ experience averaged 2.0 incidents, compared with respondents with less than two years’ experience who averaged 0.7 incidents
  • Clients the most common source of aggression/violence: 69 per cent of incidents involved the client, while 21 per cent involved a colleague from the worker’s organisation and 14 per cent involved a family member of the client.
Reporting incidents

Elsewhere the survey found that 50 per cent of respondents who experienced one or more incidents involving aggression or violence had not reported the incident. Of these, 59 per cent did not report because they assessed the incident as minor, or because no one was physically injured, 10 per cent believed the organisation would not action the information, and 9 per cent said the system did not make it easy to report.

Mr Holland said it was crucial that organisations encourage a culture of proactive incident reporting.

“A good system of incident reporting can be very powerful,” he said. “Good incident data, where the categorisation of incidents is consistent across staff, gives the organisation the opportunity to identify trends across clients and staff, where strategies are working or not working.

“By doing good incident reporting you can spot some of these trends and nip them in the bud, rather than just doing reporting for the sake of compliance.”

Organisational response

Discussing what organisations can do to minimise risk and best support staff, Mr Holland said an open dialogue was key.

“The purpose of the survey was to get people thinking about it, and whether it’s something people need to talk about internally. It would appear a lot of management are disconnected from staff in terms of how much of this goes on.”

Mr Holland pointed to the survey finding that, when asked what support they valued most following an incident, 45 per cent of respondents identified the ability to debrief with a manager, and 34 per cent simply wanted acknowledgement and understanding.

“A supportive environment in which staff can openly discuss the challenges they are facing will place organisations in a strong position to better understand the safety challenges and improve the safety of their staff,” the survey report said.

Read the full survey findings here

Click here to see this article as first published in Australian Ageing Agenda.