Service sector workers more likely to experience aggression at work

Workers in the service sectors more often experience violence and harassment in the workplace than workers in other broad sectors such as manufacturing, construction or agriculture.

While 14% of EU workers in total report experiencing adverse social behaviour at work – which includes verbal abuse, unwanted sexual attention, threats or humiliating behaviour, physical violence and bullying – the proportion reaches 23% among workers in health and social work. Such behaviour is also more prevalent in the transportation and storage, accommodation and food services, public administration, and education sectors. 

Women are subjected to sexual harassment more than men, while men show higher levels of exposure to physical violence than women.

Chart showing the percentage of workers in different sectors who report experiencing violence or harassment at work

 

Third-party aggression

Part of the reason for this greater exposure to violence and harassment is that many workers who provide services not only have to deal with colleagues, but often have substantial interaction with third parties, such as customers, patients and students, and this increases the risk of being harassed or attacked.

An analysis of workplace violence based on data from Eurofound’s European Working Conditions Survey found that employees in hotels and restaurants, health and education, and public administration are at higher risk of third-party violence. While the possibility of having to confront violence is inherent to some jobs, notably in policing and defence (areas categorised under public administration), it has not traditionally been associated with the work of teachers, food service staff or doctors, but current trends may change perceptions. 

Health workers vulnerable

Findings from surveys across the EU, summarised in a recent Eurofound study, indicate that in the health sector, nurses, trainee doctors and physiotherapists report exposure to violent behaviour well above national averages. In a 2012 German survey of care staff, for instance, 56% reported having experienced physical violence (63% in inpatient geriatric care), and 78% had experienced verbal aggression in the 12 months preceding the survey. In all, 44% of respondents said they had experienced physical violence and 68% experienced verbal aggression once per month or more.

Lone workers are also particularly vulnerable to violent attacks, according the UK’s Health and Safety Executive. This is a diverse group and includes: 

  • people working at their premises in a small workshop, petrol station, kiosk or shop;
  • people working on their own outside normal hours – cleaners, security staff and maintenance or repair staff, for instance; 
  • mobile workers, such as postal workers, taxi drivers, estate agents, and sales or service representatives. 

Impact on health

Being subjected to aggression at work has a marked impact on the health, well-being and productivity of workers. It can lead to stress, depression and anxiety, conditions that lead to absenteeism, incapacity to work and may even cause workers to exit early from the workforce. 

More reading

The report Violence and harassment in European workplaces: Extent, impacts and policies brings together research findings from across Member States on the prevalence of violence and harassment at work and its impact on workers and business, and describes legislation and policies that have been put in place to tackle the problem.    

The joint report from Eurofound and EU-OSHA Psychosocial risks in Europe: Prevalence and strategies for prevention assesses the extent of psychosocial risks in European workplaces and examines measures establishments are taking to tackle them.

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