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Everyone has the right to feel safe at work. Yet up to 95 per cent of Victorian healthcare workers have experienced occupational violence and aggression (OVA). Being repeatedly exposed to OVA can have a cumulative and significant ongoing effect on a person's physical and psychological wellbeing.

Cover of Occupational violence and aggession post-incident support: A guide for health service staff

About this resource

This online resource is intended for people who work in a Victorian healthcare setting. It has information about common reactions to OVA, Psychological First Aid, speaking with others and taking care of yourself after OVA. It also includes a simple, 10-question tool to measure psychological distress. 

Downloadable guide

The information in this online resource is also available in a downloadable guide, which contains additional support and guidance.

Occupational violence and aggression post-incident support: a guide for health service staff

Your responsibilities after an incident of OVA

As a health service staff member you are expected to treat all reports of OVA seriously. You have a responsibility to:

  • comply with local policies and procedures for managing and responding to incidents of OVA
  • report any incident of OVA in accordance with local protocols
  • be aware of available sources of information and support, including opportunities for education and training
  • take reasonable care of your own health and safety at work, and the health and safety of others who may be affected by your actions
  • communicate your concerns to your manager, a senior leader, or another trusted senior staff member. You may also wish to raise any occupational health and safety concerns with your OHS representative.

Find out about managers' responsibilities following an incident of occupational violence and aggression.

Common reactions to OVA

Immediately after experiencing an incident of OVA you may experience a range of psychological, emotional and physical reactions that can be quite intense and frightening. Typically these are relatively short-term reactions to a very stressful situation. People usually recover quickly after exposure to OVA, often with practical and emotional support from others.

However, some people can experience longer-term effects of OVA. 

Find out more about the common reactions to OVA.

Psychological First Aid

In the immediate aftermath of the incident of OVA you may receive Psychological First Aid (PFA). PFA is a way of providing early help to people who have experienced a very stressful or traumatic event.

PFA seeks to reduce people's initial distress and address their basic needs for comfort, information, practical help and emotional support. PFA helps people with 'adaptive coping' – for example, help with problem-solving – and encourages people to access their existing social supports.

There is no set formula for providing PFA to a person following a very stressful or traumatic experience. The person is supported in using strategies and resources that suit them and that are readily available.

Debriefing

You should never feel pressured to talk about your experiences.

Debriefing refers to having a conversation about sharing and examining information after a specific event has occurred, and can serve a variety of purposes. Operational debriefing and psychological debriefing are terms that are sometimes used interchangeably. However, they are quite different.

Operational debriefing can be useful. It involves reviewing organisational processes and systems following an incident, and forms part of a post-incident response. It is intended to identify what worked well and opportunities for improvement in future organisational responses. As an example, this may include review of a code grey response and strategies such as behaviour management plans.

Psychological debriefing should not be routinely offered. It is a structured (often one-off) psychological intervention that focuses on affected individuals and was originally intended to help a person process traumatic experiences. This type of debriefing encourages people to recount the traumatic event and their responses in some detail. There is no evidence that it prevents the development of post-traumatic mental health disorders or that it promotes better outcomes for individuals who have been exposed to a traumatic event. In addition, psychological debriefing may interfere with normal recovery processes because it assumes that everyone is ready to confront the experience at the same time. It may also inadvertently direct people away from their natural supports and coping strategies. Organisational responses that use the principles of PFA are the current best practice to support a healthy workforce.

Taking care of yourself

It's important to take care of yourself after an incident of OVA. There are a number of strategies you can use to cope with distress and help with recovery, including helpful self-talk, controlled breathing, spending time doing positive activities and staying connected to others.

Find out about Strategies for self-care after an incident of OVA.

Read our Ten tips for coping after an incident of OVA.

Talking to your manager

If possible, keep your manager informed about what's going on for you. There may be some personal details about your circumstances that you would prefer not to tell your manager. However, it is generally helpful to provide your manager with enough information to enable them to best help you. Your manager can help you with reporting requirements and getting more information and support. If you have concerns about the boundaries of confidentiality, information sharing or other issues, discuss these with your manager. You can also liaise with human resources or your Employee Assistance Program if you have any concerns about confidentiality or information sharing.

If you're not coping

Some people experience persistent distress after an incident of OVA. They may develop a mental health problem such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, or they may start using excessive amounts of alcohol or other drugs.

OVA can have a significant impact on some people's psychological wellbeing:

  • if they have pre-existing health or mental health issues
  • if they've had prior exposure to incidents of OVA or other psychological trauma
  • depending on the severity of the threat
  • if they are experiencing other stressful experiences in their life.

Some signs that you may not be coping include:

  • you don't feel your 'usual self'
  • your problems seem quite severe
  • your emotional reactions are not improving
  • it is difficult for you to undertake day-to-day work or other activities, or to get along with colleagues, patients, family or friends.

Talk to someone you trust if you have concerns about how you're coping. A trusted family member, friend or colleague can often be a good place to start. Many psychological and medical treatments are available.

Find out about strategies for self-care after an incident of OVA.

Ten tips for coping after an incident of OVA

Self-assessment tool for psychological distress

In the initial weeks after an incident of OVA you may experience strong feelings of fear, sadness, guilt, anger, or grief. As you begin to make sense of what has happened to you, these feelings usually begin to subside. Most people recover quite quickly with the support of family, friends and colleagues.

If you have experienced an incident of OVA, and you notice that your distress levels do not subside within a few weeks of the incident, it is important to consider seeking help.

You can complete a 10-question self-assessment tool to guide your decision to seek support and assistance.

Complete the self-assessment tool

Helping others 

Encourage your colleagues to seek professional help if they think that they are not coping or they think they would benefit from speaking to a health professional.

Use the following strategies to support your colleagues after an incident of OVA:

  • Speak to your colleague in a confidential environment.
  • Try to put yourself in the person's shoes – listen carefully to what they are telling you.
  • Don't worry about saying 'the right thing'; what's most important is listening and showing genuine concern.
  • If the person is distressed, don't feel that you have to make it go away.
  • Acknowledge the person's distress by saying something like, 'It's really tough to go through something like this'.
  • Don't pressure the person to tell you what happened to them.
  • Try not to give simplistic reassurances such as 'I know how you feel', You shouldn't feel that way', or 'You'll be fine in no time'.
  • Don't talk about your own or someone else's troubles.
  • Avoid using humour that may be interpreted as making light of the situation.

Ten tips for coping after an incident of occupational violence and aggression

Here are a few strategies you can use to cope with distress after an incident of occupational violence and help you recover as soon as possible.

Reviewed 26 October 2021

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Worker Wellbeing Department of Health

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