Workplace violence and harassment is a global concern. Sarah Cumbers, director of evidence and insight at London-based charity Lloyd’s Register Foundation, explores how OSH professionals can address it.
For an OSH professional, implementing strategies to keep employees safe can be challenging when risks are posed by colleagues. Many people are aware of workplace violence and harassment, but few understand its scale. Interpreting patterns and understanding who is most at risk can be a starting point for prevention.
The Lloyd’s Register Foundation’s World Risk Poll has provided the first global and comparable measure of violence and harassment in the workplace. The poll’s data can be used to understand trends, as laid out in our latest report Safe at work? Global experiences of violence and harassment (Lloyd’s Register Foundation (LRF), 2023).
Safe at work?
In the UK, violence and harassment in the workplace is a problem. According to our most recent World Risk Poll, more than a quarter of people (26%) in the UK have experienced it during their working lifetime – a rate that is above the global average of 21% .
This isn’t limited to one-off experiences either. We also found that of those who had experienced workplace violence and harassment, more than half of UK respondents (58%) said they had experienced it three or more times. These patterns could signal cases going unreported or being repeated. Incidences could even continue after they are reported if procedures in place are not used to isolate an issue and resolve it.
Research from the poll can also be used to identify barriers to reporting cases. The most common reason for UK respondents not telling anyone about their experience, for example, was feeling it was a waste of time – almost two-thirds (65%) of respondents said this.
Discrimination and experience
Men are fractionally more likely to report having experienced violence and harassment at work at a global level (22% vs 20% of women). However, the report demonstrates the most vulnerable sub-groups are mostly comprised of women.
For example, women with a tertiary education were found to be one of the groups most likely to report experiencing violence and harassment at work globally, at 29%. This compares with 15% of women with primary education globally.
The data suggests a gap between education levels in terms of the experience of workplace violence and harassment, although this may be slightly exaggerated by those with more education being empowered to recognise behaviour as harassment, and report it as such. OSH professionals can use this insight to tailor training programmes for organisations, ensuring all levels have sufficient understanding of what constitutes harassment and procedures to address it.
The report, however, goes further to demonstrate a trend that could help delve deeper into who may be most at risk. In the UK, 29% of people who experienced any form of discrimination – including gender, ethnicity or disability – said they experienced violence and harassment at work. This compares with 25% for those who had not experienced discrimination. This can help direct focus. Reasons for not reporting cases also differed between demographics, which provides useful information when encouraging people to come forward. For instance, among the UK’s female respondents, a gap in knowledge around procedures provides some explanation for reluctance to come forward: 40% cited unclear procedures as one of the reasons to not tell anyone about their experience.
Early intervention to root out the problem should begin to reduce patterns of offending
On a global level, further trends can be seen between native- and foreign-born women’s reasons for not reporting. Foreign-born female respondents who did not tell anyone about their experience were more likely to say this was due to ‘not knowing what to do’ (51% vs 46%) or the ‘procedures at work being unclear’ (60% vs 41%). However, foreign-born women were much less worried about being punished, with 27% stating this was a reason they did not tell anyone about their experience, compared with 36% of native-born women.
Professionals can take steps to increase awareness around procedures, and make them clearer for those who use non-native languages. It may also be necessary to implement processes to remove fears. OSH advisers can help increase awareness through training programmes that look to tackle these barriers. To tailor this to each company, inspections and reports must be able to delve into which of these barriers are most prominent.
Using the information around the frequency of experience and how it affects vulnerable demographics is a key starting point for understanding risk and preventing harm. If workplace violence and harassment in the UK is almost always a pattern, early intervention that resolves the issue needs to be instilled into procedures. Adopting an inclusive, zero-tolerance approach to investigating cases will help ensure organisations can do this. When it comes to training personnel or carrying out audits, these findings can help signpost where OSH advisers can be looking for improvements.
With suitable training, more awareness around procedures, and consideration of potential barriers, more can be done to encourage those experiencing violence or harassment in the workplace to feel comfortable reporting it – with confidence that there will be sufficient consequences to prevent repeat offending.
Policy-makers have a role to play in guiding organisations in preventative measures, but so too do OSH professionals and HR teams. Early intervention that explores the case in detail to root out the problem and hold perpetrators to account should begin to reduce patterns of offending. If organisations are seeing through processes to discover problems and resolve them, then the reluctance to report experiences should begin to improve.
Such interventions should raise awareness of workplace violence and harassment, the significant harm it causes to employees, and the economic impact on employers. The UK’s ratification of ILO Convention No 190 means there is further onus on organisations to help end violence and harassment in the workplace. OSH professionals will need to ensure procedures and training for workplaces act in line with that convention and make its aspirations a reality.
Lloyd’s Register Foundation. (2023) World risk poll 2021: safe at work?. See: https://wrp.lrfoundation.org.uk/LRF_2021_report_safe-at-work.pdf (accessed 28 February 2023).