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Attacks against women health workers show how workplace violence hurts us all

Violence in the health sector, where a majority of workers are women, accounts for a quarter of assaults at work – impacting societies at large.

Nurses and caregivers join a national strike in Auckland, New Zealand 2012. Photo: Flickr/Simon Oosterman. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Some Nurses and caregivers join a national strike in Auckland, New Zealand 2012. Photo: Flickr/Simon Oosterman. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Some rights reserved. The worldwide #MeToo movement has revealed how sexual harassment and assault are part of most women’s professional lives. However, we must not overlook other forms of violence that women suffer at work – and how this affects society at large. The experiences of emergency nurses and other health workers, a majority of whom around the world are women, shows this clearly.

Insults, humiliation, and discrimination have become ‘natural’ aspects of many work relationships. When attacked, many women do not report these incidents, not knowing who to turn to or out of fear of losing their jobs. Even worse, some women feel that violence is an inevitable ‘part of their jobs.’

In Mexico, as many as nine out of 10 women who’ve experienced physical or sexual violence at work never asked their colleagues or supervisors for help or filed complaints to police or their employers.

Some women feel that violence is an inevitable ‘part of their jobs.’

Men can also suffer violence and harassment in the workplace, but gender stereotyping and inequality in power relationships make women much more vulnerable to such abuse. They may find no relief at home either, with domestic violence a widespread problem. According to the United Nations' gender equality organisation, UN Women, 35% of women around the world have experienced physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives. 

Symptoms of violence at work include anxiety, depression, panic attacks, sleep disorders, attention deficit and memory problems. Women who face such abuse may leave their jobs, interrupting employment with consequences for current and future income (including fewer rights to pensions), exacerbating the already unacceptable global gender pay gap of 23%.

Even though workplace violence affects all sectors and all categories of workers, the health sector – where women make up the majority of workers around the world – best illustrates the seriousness of the situation.

A protest of student nurses in Paris, France 2006. Photo: manu_le_manu/Flickr. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Some rights reserved. A protest of student nurses in Paris, France 2006. Photo: manu_le_manu/Flickr. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Some rights reserved. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that violence in the health sector makes up a quarter of all assaults that take place on the job. A 2011 report from the United States found that 54% of emergency nurses reported experiencing violence at work within seven days of participating in this study.

When researchers ask nurses where this violence comes from, they point to patients and visitors on one hand, and colleagues and superiors on the other.

Work-related violence is also related to external factors. It intensifies in situations of war and economic crisis, for instance, and can be a consequence of privatisation and austerity measures which bring more deregulation and increased flexibility that enable more violence against workers in general.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) notes that risks of violence at work are seen to increase due to factors like restructuring and other changes to production processes, insufficient staff numbers, excessive workloads, non-standard contracts and unsafe working environments.

Violence at work can heighten fear and anxiety levels more widely in society.

This doesn’t impact workers in these places only. As you can see in too many hospitals, exhaustion, depression and insufficient staffing affects the quality of services for patients and their families.

Violence at work can heighten fear and anxiety levels more widely in society. Victims and perpetrators can be employers and workers or “third parties” including clients, customers, service providers, users, patients and members of the public. Governments that introduce austerity measures, weakening public services, can also be considered third parties.

For this reason, Public Services International (PSI), where I work, has been advocating for the inclusion of this third parties’ concept in characterising work-related violence. We’ve seen how such violence can have a direct impact on the quality of public services – and how deteriorating work environments, and deregulating and dismantling the public sector to hand it over to private capital, can exacerbate risks of abuse. We must battle these forces.

Next year, the ILO will negotiate a new agreement to address violence and harassment against women and men at work. We’re celebrating the inclusion of the concept of ‘third parties’ that are impacted by such violence in this agreement’s draft text. We must recognise how important dialogue and concrete action is, from employers, workers and governments. We are all victims of work-related violence. Eliminating it is a task for us all.

About the author

Verónica Montúfar is a sociologist and gender equality officer at Public Services International.


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