real life

"I cry on the way home": 5 healthcare workers on what it's like to be abused daily.

Worksafe Victoria
Thanks to our brand partner, Worksafe Victoria

Warning: This post deals with mental health and may be triggering for some readers.

Screamed at. Spat on. Punched. Called a “fat sl*t”. Degraded. Threatened. Stalked. Sexually harassed and assaulted. Strangled… and worse.

These are just some of the things our healthcare workers have to deal with at work. Every single day.

Violence and aggression in the healthcare sector happens. Every shift, the people who dedicate their lives to helping us are abused, by us, for doing their jobs – it’s called occupational violence and aggression (OVA), and it needs to stop.

It’s not just the more extreme acts mentioned above. Any of us could be guilty of committing OVA when we’re under stress, without even realising. It’s a passive aggressive comment about how long you’ve been waiting to be seen by a doctor. It’s an abusive insult muttered when the ICU staff can’t let you see your loved at that very moment. It’s lashing out at the paramedic who’s trying to resuscitate your friend. It’s hurting a nurse because you’re hurting inside.

Eye rolling, yelling, swearing, derogatory and abusive language, threatening people, making aggressive gestures or intimidating someone – it’s all unacceptable behaviour that has a huge impact on the health and wellbeing of our healthcare workers – and it’s never OK.

Being exposed to violent or aggressive acts isn’t in any healthcare worker’s job description.

Mamamia spoke to five healthcare workers about their experiences of violence and aggression at work.

Their words are confronting and deeply sad, and will make you understand what it would be like to walk in their shoes, just for a step.

These people are here to help us and our loved ones in our most desperate times, and the awful reality is that they are being exposed to violent or aggressive acts in return, all the time.

But in spite of their experiences, the dedication and commitment our healthcare workers have to helping people at their worst is endlessly inspiring. And hopefully, if we find ourselves in moments of stress around them, we can take a step back and remember they’re here to help.

These are their stories:

Jen, Registered Nurse at a major public hospital

“I’ve been working in healthcare for over 15 years and as a nurse for the past 10. Violence and aggression is a massive part of my day to day job and to be honest, it has become less common to get through even one shift without experiencing some sort of abuse. Most commonly, it’s verbal abuse, although I and many others do experience physical aggression.

“It’s hard to pinpoint a one-off story as it is an almost daily occurrence. We are fluent in de-escalation techniques and put them into practice as much as any other skill. Though when that fails, the duress alarm and security guards are often our heroes.

“Only today, I was only called a sl*t by a patient. The other day, it was a big fat blonde b*tch. While those statements are normally considered pretty offensive, I still classify that behaviour as relatively minor compared to other situations.

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“If someone was to say anything like that to me outside of a work environment, I would not stand for it… how is it acceptable to speak to a nurse that way?

“Having said all of this, it might be hard to believe I do love my job. I love to care for people, the money is not the best but I am proud to do what I do. When someone says thank you or I can see I’ve helped even in a small way, it does out shine the bad.

“Sometimes, though, people often forget that there is a human under our uniform, someone’s daughter, sister, brother or parent and we’re only trying to help.”

Sonia, Administrative Staff in an Intensive Care Unit

“I suffer verbal abuse on an almost daily basis when having to explain to people in-person and over the phone that they can’t talk to the nurse/doctor or visit outside of visiting hours. I completely understand that it can be very stressful for people to have family and friends in ICU, but we have to allow staff time to help the patient.

“This can be difficult if they have to stop every five minutes to take a phone call or speak with visitors. We try our best to find the happy medium but don’t deserve the abuse, we are just doing our job to help staff to help their loved ones.

“I’ve been called selfish and unfeeling for not admitting visitors to the ward. I’ve had people get right up in my face almost to the point of physical abuse to try and intimidate me into letting them do what they want. Visitors tell me at least a couple of times a week that I don’t know what they’re feeling and how would I feel if it was my family. The sad thing is I know exactly what they are feeling as I’ve been in their situation.

“I had to push a panic button to call security on one family and have them removed from the hospital. I couldn’t let them in to see their patient because the staff were busy trying to resuscitate another patient who had had a massive [cardiac] arrest and we couldn’t admit any visitors.

“I cry on the way home from work some days when it is particularly bad. I do shift work and feel like telling people that I have given up time with my family to help their family member or friend. My daughter is only eight. I work 10-hour shifts and some days, don’t see her at all, just a quick phone call to say goodnight while I’m on my dinner break.

“I hope this helps people to understand the other side of the coin. We get sad when people die too. My beautiful nursing colleagues sit with people who are dying without any family. We are humans too.”

Laura, Radiographer

healthcare-worker
"It basically just feels normal now and I don’t really even notice, which is sad." Image: Getty.
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"Once, a man grabbed me and called me a sl*t and b*tch for placing a cannula in his arm, after he signed a consent form for the procedure and I had explained it to him. This man was allowed to finish his examinations, not charged for them, and his referring doctor was contacted to mitigate the damage his feedback might have caused.

"This happens every time there is a complaint against staff. The behaviour displayed towards us is minimised and dismissed. The way it makes me feel is upset and angry. I don’t believe I can change anything and I don’t believe I can speak up. I think about it every evening after another verbal spray from a patient.

"But I know I am good at my job and a kind, compassionate radiographer to those who walk in my door and that’s all I can do. It gets harder to maintain that spirit after each time and I have considered leaving the profession I enjoy."

Theo, emergency physician

"I've walked into a ward and had to deal with an aggressive 19-year-old girl and her greeting my 'Hello' with 'What the f--- do you want? You stupid gay c--- in a pink f---ing shirt!'

"There was also a man in the emergency department [with] aggressive behaviour. He whispered to me 'I'll get you on your way to the car park, you'll be sorry'.

"And just last week, a drunk man was being rude to the nurses so I informed him of our zero-tolerance policy for abusive behaviour. At that point he said, 'I know my rights, now I'm leaving so get me a taxi voucher and f--- off or I'll call my MP'.

"I've been spat at, kicked and scratched too. It's a shame, because most people – patients and their families – are actually wonderful and grateful."

Cara, Registered Nurse in a busy Emergency Department

nurse-in-theatre
"I cry on the way home from work some days when it is particularly bad." Image: Getty.
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"One incident that sticks out in my mind was when I was sitting in the nurses' station doing my notes at the end of a night shift, it must have been about 6am, and I was so tired. A male patient ran from his bay into the nurses' station yelling 'f*ck you' with his penis exposed. He ran to me and shook his penis in my face.

"I’ve seen my work mates be spat on. Probably at least once per shift I am verbally abused about the wait times, people shouting at me through the glass in front of a whole waiting room of people. It basically just feels normal now and I don’t really even notice, which is sad.

"As a nurse I always practice empathy and patience. Why are they acting like this? Is it drug and alcohol-related? Are they scared, in pain, tired, sick of long wait times on uncomfortable ED beds? Or are they just an arsehole?

"I have definitely fought back tears on plenty of occasions and had to take a moment to gather myself in the pan room or treatment room. I’m a lot better at standing up for myself now and have plenty of good comebacks when people are rude.

"I do think I feel upset mostly because you are giving everything to your patients while you are at work. Always running, trying to make everyone comfortable, keeping them safe, administering pain relief and other meds, taking observations, documenting, bandaging, ice packing, handing over to the wards, feeding people, answering call bells, toileting, calling doctors... the list goes on and on and on. You never stop running for your patients and their safety.

"I’m so often genuinely taken aback when people get nasty and abusive. Because everything I’m doing is to make them feel better. And that’s why it’s not OK! We are always trying to help."

Healthcare workers are there to help us and our loved ones when we need them most. No matter what the situation, we can all remember one thing: violence and aggression towards healthcare workers is never OK.

* Names have been changed.

For more information and resources about OVA and what to do if you're being subjected to OVA at work, visit the www.worksafe.vic.gov.au/itsneverok.

If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14. If you are in immediate danger, call 000.

This content was brought to you with thanks by our brand partner, WorkSafe Victoria.

Worksafe Victoria

No matter what the situation, aggression and violence is never OK. Unacceptable behaviour can have a negative impact on the physical and mental health and wellbeing of our healthcare workers.
Most of us understand that extreme acts of violence are unacceptable. But not everyone realises there is a scale of violence and aggression. Some examples include:
- Aggressive gestures or expressions such as eye rolling and sneering
- Verbal abuse such as yelling, swearing and name calling
- Intimidating physical behaviour such as standing in a healthcare worker’s personal space or standing over them
- Physical assault such as biting, spitting, scratching, pushing, shoving, tripping and grabbing
- Extreme acts of violence and aggression such as hitting, punching, strangulation, kicking, personal threats, threats with weapons, sexual assault.
None of these are ok. Being exposed to these incidents repetitively can have a cumulative and significant ongoing effect on health and wellbeing.

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