Introduction to aggression in the workplace

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Aggression in the workplace can be defined as ‘any incident in which employees and other people are abused, threatened or assaulted at work’. Within this definition, threat means any statement or behaviour that leads a person to believe they are in danger of being physically attacked. This can be an implied or actual threat to safety, health or well-being.  An assault or physical attack refers to the direct or indirect application of force by a person to the body of, the clothing or equipment worn by, another person, whereby this action creates a risk to health and safety. 

Neither the intent nor ability to carry out the threat is relevant. 

Aggression in the workplace, in any form, is not part of the job. Aggression in the workplace is a hazard and employers must take reasonable, practical steps to protect employees and other people in the workplace from aggressive incidents which may injure or harm them.  

The management of aggression in the workplace can be separated into three phases, ‘before, during and after’ as outlined below. Both employers and employees are able to take action to minimise the chance and impact of aggression in the workplace. More information about each of these sections can be found on this page and in Toolkits and Information Resources

Is there a difference between aggression and violence?

In common usage aggression tends to refer to abusive language and threatening language or behaviour and violence tends to refer to the use of physical force.  For the purposes of this information aggression is considered to also include violence.

Injuries and Illness that can result from aggression in the workplace

In Western Australia each year, on average more than 450 workers' compensation claims for time off work arise from aggression in the workplace. However, this figure is only the number of employees who have claimed workers’ compensation. It is likely that many more incidents involving aggression occur without being reported. 

If an employee is subjected to aggression in the workplace, physical injuries as well as psychological injuries may occur to that employee. Other persons in the workplace who witnessed the incident may also experience psychological effects. Psychological conditions that may result from experiencing aggression in the workplace include but not limited to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Depressive Disorders and Anxiety Disorders.  

If employees have been psychologically affected as a result of aggression in the workplace, changes in their workplace behaviour may be observed such as:

  • Increased absenteeism from work;
  • Increased tardiness;
  • Increased sick leave;
  • Decline in productivity and performance standards;
  • Impaired concentration or ability to make decisions which increases the risk of injury;
  • Reluctance to return to workplace area where the event occurred. 

Employees may also experience the following signs and symptoms through the four channels of their body: emotional, cognitive, behavioural and physical.  Examples of the signs and symptoms for each of the four channels are displayed below. If you are experiencing any of these signs and symptoms, or have concerns about your health, please consult your medical practitioner.

Physical Cognitive Emotional Behavioural
  • Increased heart rate (pounding)
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Sweaty palms; tightness in the chest
  • Headaches
  • Diarrhoea
  • Tightness in neck/back muscles
  • Trembling
  • Tics or twitching
  • Stuttering
  • Other speech difficulties
  • Pupil dilation
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Fatigue
  • Proneness to accidents
  • Slumped posture
  • Shallow breathing
  • Susceptibility to minor illnesses
  • Dryness of mouth or throat
  • Butterflies in stomach
  • Forgetfulness
  • Preoccupation
  • Blocking
  • Errors in judging distance
  • Diminished or exaggerated fantasy life
  • Reduced creativity
  • Difficulty in making decisions
  • Mental confusion
  • Lack of concentration
  • Diminished productivity
  • Lack of attention to detail
  • Orientation to past
  • Over-sensitivity to criticism
  • Irritability
  • Lowered self-esteem
  • Angry outbursts
  • Depression
  • Jealousy
  • Feeling ‘up-tight’
  • Suspiciousness
  • Diminished initiative
  • Loneliness
  • Helplessness
  • Insecurity
  • Frustration
  • Lack of interest
  • Tendency to cry
  • Critical of oneself and others
  • Lacking in confidence
  • Self-deprecation
  • Exhaustion
  • Desire to escape
  • Increased smoking
  • Aggressive driving
  • Having accidents
  • Clumsiness
  • Nervous laughter
  • Panic
  • Increased alcohol or drug abuse
  • Carelessness
  • Eating too much
  • Fast (even incoherent) speech
  • Chewing fingernails

 

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