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Barend Barentsen in Dagblad van het Noorden on aggression in the workplace

A national survey conducted by Dutch newspapers Dagblad van het Noorden, Turbantia, Brabants Dagblad and the Dutch Federation of Trade Unions (FNV) shows that staff working in disability and mental health care often face violence in the workplace. In the three northern provinces of the Netherlands, this affects as much as 80 per cent. While most workplace accidents are dealt with internally by care institutions, they are rarely reported to the police or reported to the Labour Inspectorate. Many respondents feel unsupported by their employers.

High staff turnover causes unrest

The increasing aggression is mainly due to a shortage of trained staff, the high workload, and the placement of clients in groups where suitable treatment is unavailable. Experienced staff are leaving the healthcare sector and self-employed, temporary workers and trainees are having to make up for the shortages. This high staff turnover causes anxiety among clients and comes at the expense of the bond of trust, increasing aggression.

When a care worker receives death threats from a client for the seventh time, it does something to someone, observes Barend Barentsen, Professor of Labour Law at Leiden University. Yet there is a legal grey area when it comes to psychosocial consequences. 'It's difficult to prove that you’re suffering from a mental condition because of your work and that it's not because of a genetic predisposition or problems at home,' says Barentsen in the Dagblad van het Noorden.

Employers have a duty of care to staff

An employer is legally obliged to combat psychosocial work stress. Most healthcare organisations do have policies in place for this, but Barentsen has noticed that healthcare organisations do not always comply. 'The policy may consist of mandatory aftercare and preventive measures such as staff training. However, the law does not spell out what this entails. Clear-cut, concrete standards are lacking.'

Although the employer has a duty of care to its staff, Barentsen also acknowledges that aggression in the workplace is not always preventable. 'That’s a valid defence for the employer: it's impossible to rule out all harm and aggression, also because the law prohibits certain actions to restrain clients. But if an employer has not done everything possible to eliminate risks, they have simply failed.'

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