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You may be used to dealing with complicated or volatile situations but how can you ensure that your personal safety is maintained at all times? Author Brian Atkins offers his advice as to how you can keep yourself and your colleagues safe when visiting clients.

Working as a front-line practitioner in social care is an essential, complex, difficult and rewarding task. Working in child or adult protection, or with people affected by behavioural disturbance further adds complexity to the task, which is often conducted alone in a stressful or risky environment. Such stress can have a major impact on the personal and professional wellbeing of the worker.

Working in situations which appear unsafe can also impair judgement and professional practice. When social workers feel unsafe they may not be able to challenge poor parenting practice or behaviour or to insist on fulfilling their duty to protect children, including the need to see them alone and inspect bedrooms. This factor has been identified in several Serious Case Reviews over the years including that of Victoria Climbie and many more recent reports. Similar challenges apply in adult social care.

Assaults on social care staff have caused concern for many years but have never been successfully addressed on a national basis. It is part of the reason why practitioners leave the profession, and why organisations fail to perform optimally.

What happens to people (including professionals) when they feel threatened?


When people are subject to physical or emotional threat, the body produces an unconscious reaction to freeze, run away or fight as a deeply inbuilt survival mechanism, common to animals and humans. The freeze response causes the person to remain totally still in the hopes that they will not be seen or attract aggression – like a “rabbit frozen in the headlights”. It can cause workers to freeze, and to not have the necessary professional interaction with their clients.

Preparing for flight or fight causes changes in the body which stimulate major muscles but also have a disastrous effect on thinking and analytical ability.

In some long term professional relationships, workers can become trapped into a hostage style relationship with their clients, where the power balance shifts from the worker to the service user due to the impact of long-term threats and intimidation. This is related to the ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ where terrorist hostages have made positive relationships with their captors and try to appease and support them. If a worker is not properly supervised and supported this can result in the worker trying to please the service user family, by minimising the threat to the vulnerable child or adult, and consequently putting the actual subject of intervention at risk

What can practitioners and their employers do to reduce risk of violence and aggression, keep safe and be able to work effectively?


As a social worker, you should not think that realistic anxiety in threatening situations is due to your personal weakness or inadequacy, rather as a consequence of the job / role that has put you there. It is both your professional responsibility and that of your employers to address the issues to enable you to work safely.

Social care workers in risky situations need to be aware of the potential dangers and plan their response accordingly. Proactive steps that you can personally take include:
  • Improving your safety awareness, including in service user’s homes, on the street and traveling
  • Conducting risk assessments of situations and service users
  • Planning to minimise risk
  • Developing team-based safety systems and processes

Using supervision


A good supervisor is potentially your best ally in developing working practices to keep you safe. She or he should recognise the impact violence and aggression can have on your work including the potential for hostage style relationships and should proactively ask questions if they suspect that such concerns are being minimised. They can also help to access additional resources (e.g. pairing with colleagues or the support of police/security) to help you feel safe in potentially dangerous situations. You can use your supervisor to help you practice appropriate responses, including how to impart unwelcome news.

Working with colleagues


Your team members are a good source of support when you are feeling anxious about work-based situations. Staff safety should be a regular part of team meeting discussions, including helping to prepare for commonly occurring situations such as having to see a child alone. The team culture should ideally support this should be no trivialising of concerns about personal safety. Team based safety systems for lone working will be essential.

Training


Your employer should offer Staff Safety/Lone Worker training. Good training should include basic safety awareness and provide a theoretical understanding of why people become violent and aggressive It should enable you to understand and practice de-escalation techniques, and to be able to recognise when the situation is unsafe. Training may also include disengagement techniques to enable workers to avoid or break away from physical assaults.

Such training should be provided within the ethos of social care and you have a duty to take it seriously, and to use team meetings to refresh your understanding of the issue and the messages from training.

Policies and procedures


Your employer should have policies and procedures concerning lone working and staff safety. You and your team should be aware of where to find these, and what they say and how they apply to the work situation. This should be a regular item for team meetings.
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