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Workplace Violence in the Post-COVID Era


Joy Siringer, RN, MBA, MHA, surveyor

It’s clear by now that COVID-19 is going to be a disruptor in many industries, especially in health care.

The Joint Commission, along with our colleagues at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and numerous other health organizations, have been studying workplace violence prevention strategies for the better part of a decade. The COVID-19 pandemic could potentially intensify the workplace violence issue, but there are also early indicators giving rise to optimism.

Clinicians Under Strain
There’s probably never been a time when clinicians have been more stressed. 

Nurses have been on the news for protesting when some states started re-opening in early May. Political tensions are at an all-time high on issues related to the pandemic—masking, social distancing, conspiracy theories, not to mention recent racial strain.

Nurses working in COVID units are often facing abuse by the public and in hospital settings. An article in Nursing Times details nurses being spit upon and called “disease spreaders.” This is happening worldwide, especially in South American nations that are currently being hit hard.

Working environments in hospital units are hotbeds of stress. As would be expected when dealing with a novel pandemic, incivility has been running rampant. Verbal abuse and incivility—known precursors to actual violence—have been occurring between every combination of nurses, doctors, patients and families. The need to provide end-of-life care is exacerbating these tensions. 

Time will tell how this ultimately impacts actual workplace violence, but research has proven time and again a definite link between verbal abuse, incivility and incidents of violence.

Signs of Hope
That said, actual instances of workplace violence have dropped sharply during the COVID-19 pandemic, largely due to strict visitation policies.
This held true even when adjusted for factors like low overall hospital occupancy. As operations slowly resume normalcy, many hospitals may continue limiting visitors, as suggested in this article.

We are at the exact tipping point right now. With clinician tensions at an all-time high, the already high prevalence of workplace violence could explode in the months to follow. On the other hand, limiting the number of individuals in the hospital environment could well reduce the statistical probability of a violent incident.

I’m curious how this issue is playing out in your organizations. None of us have a crystal ball, but we can build off each others’ opinions and experiences (in a respectful manner, of course).

Joy Siringer, RN, MBA, MHA, is a full-time surveyor with The Joint Commission specializing in hospital accreditation. Her education includes paramedic and nursing training in North Carolina. She earned her MBA/MHA in Phoenix and attended Grand Canyon University where she completed her academic education in Organizational Leadership in Healthcare under its doctorate program. Her career has included directorships over medical-surgical units, emergency departments and chest pain centers until joining The Joint Commission in 2016.