CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A new report from a University of Illinois labor expert found that 90 percent of nurses surveyed in Illinois experienced violence on the job at least once during the past 12 months, with 50 percent experiencing it six times or more during that period.
According to research from Emily E. LB. Twarog, a professor of labor and employment relations at Illinois, the expectation of violence is “a fundamental part of the job” when you’re a front-line health care worker in Illinois.
“Nursing is a really difficult job, and violence in the workplace is a major issue,” she said. “It’s a physically demanding job with a lot of repetitive stress injuries, and it’s also a mentally and emotionally draining job. Now add the potential for physical or sexual assaults while at work, and it paints a fairly grim picture of the profession.”
The study surveyed 275 nurses who worked in a variety of health care settings, including hospitals, nursing homes and rehabilitation centers. The vast majority of nurses who answered the survey – 88 percent – were women, and respondents had a broad cross-section of racial diversity and educational attainment.
Twarog found that 90 percent of surveyed nurses experienced violence ranging from verbal abuse such as name-calling and threats; to physical assaults such as pinching, punching and thrown objects; and to sexual assault and threats such as stalking, groping and sexual harassment.
Despite experiencing an incidence of workplace violence, 98 percent of nurses surveyed reported that they continued working immediately after being a target.
“That’s amazing to me,” said Twarog, who is also the director of the Regina V. Polk Women’s Labor Leadership Conference. “It speaks to the commitment that nurses have to their job and their profession, and their desire to follow through on the care they’re providing.”
But it’s also because many nurses don’t have “an out” after they experience workplace violence, Twarog said. According to the research, 48 percent of nurses reported that they were not offered the option to leave work after a workplace incident. More than 50 percent of nurses reported that management was ineffective in addressing workplace violence issues.
“They feel like they can’t take a break or step away for a few hours because those types of procedures are not in place,” Twarog said. “It was clear that the nurses didn’t know what the policies on workplace violence were, and that’s a problem. They might know what to do with biohazards or needle sticks in the workplace, but they don’t know what their rights are when it comes to violence against them.
“It was also clear that management does not have their back, and the workplace culture and staffing levels dictate that it’s just part of the job. It’s a chronic problem that needs to be addressed.”
All that workplace violence has a cumulative effect on health care workers, which could possibly have a negative impact on other patients, Twarog said.
“And when nurses are off the clock, they also have lots of physical and emotional health problems,” she said. “It certainly takes its toll on their professional and personal lives.”
The paper makes several policy recommendations, chief among them improving nurse-to-patient ratios.
“That would be the most important change administrators or legislators could make,” Twarog said. “Nurses are, by and large, overworked, and if there were more nursing staff on the floor, not only would their experiences of violence diminish, but also the intensity of the violence would, too.”
Whether it’s a unionized nursing staff or not, Twarog said there needs to be more collaboration between the front-line workforce and management on developing, implementing and educating nurses on a workplace violence policy.
“In the nursing profession, violence will never be eradicated, but it can be lessened,” she said. “And it’s also how management responds to it. Nurses ought to feel like they could go to their immediate supervisor and say, ‘This has happened. I need a break.’ And that there are enough nurses on staff to pick up the slack. That alone would create a much healthier work environment.”
With the projected demand on the health care system only projected to grow, the findings don’t augur well for the future of the nursing profession, Twarog said.
“The survey we conducted had a mix of age ranges, so there were some respondents who had 30 years of service – nurses who were coming in when they didn’t feel that they had as many professional options,” she said. “But now, society has changed, and there are more career paths open to women. Well, women may not feel like nursing is a viable career path for them because of this type of workplace environment.”
Twarog’s paper is part of the Project for Middle Class Renewal, a research-based initiative tasked with investigating the labor market institutions and policies in today’s economy while elevating public discourse on issues affecting workers. The project is directed by U. of I. labor and employment relations professor Robert Bruno.