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7 Min Read

When Frontline Workers Feel Unsafe at Work How Can HR Take Action?

Nicole Klemp

You may have noticed an uptick in news reports and social media posts lately about workers being yelled at, threatened, or even physically assaulted on the job—you may even know someone who has experienced this firsthand. That’s because these incidents are on the rise, and many frontline workers face increased risk to their physical safety and mental health. 

Cultural, economic, and political factors have all contributed to a sharp increase in aggression against workers since the pandemic. Employees in industries such as retail, food service, hospitality, healthcare, and travel have come face-to-face with increasingly agitated and confrontational customers. 

Increased safety concerns on the frontlines

When we talk about workplace safety, we typically think about jobs that involve some level of inherent danger, like construction, certain manufacturing jobs, emergency services, etc. But today, many jobs that weren’t historically considered unsafe now come with added risk. (Even performers have come under fire—literally—as their so-called “fans” hurl objects at them onstage.)

Because of the increase in threats against their employees, some companies have taken drastic steps to protect workers from potential harm. For example, Target recently reported that employees were facing threats over LGBTQ+ Pride merchandise in their stores, leading them to pull some items that had caused “significant confrontational behavior” from their shelves. 

According to a 2023 Workplace Safety Survey by Verkada, 58% of frontline workers feel their risk of physical harm on the job is rising, and the majority of healthcare and retail workers fear being subject to “erratic or aggressive behavior.”

“Retail workers, like everybody else, are living in a highly volatile and politicized environment right now,” Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union recently told the Washington Post. “They’re seen too often as being invisible and disposable and not as people who should be treated with respect.”

Psychological safety and mental health risks

About 70% of workers in the U.S. have a frontline job, and many of those workers are members of low-income families. They’re also disproportionately women, people of color, and people over 50. That means our most vulnerable populations are taking the brunt of the public’s increasingly bad behavior.

Even though the majority of incidents don’t escalate to actual physical harm, the mental and emotional toll of these confrontations and threats against frontline workers can be significant. Frontline workers are more likely than those who don’t work frontline jobs to report symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorders, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest Household Pulse Survey.

From customers ranting and raving at baristas and flight attendants to teachers and school board members being harassed by parents in their own communities, it’s no surprise that frontline workers are experiencing mental health challenges. 

Christine Porath, a professor of management at Georgetown University, recently surveyed more than 2,000 people globally about how they have experienced rudeness and incivility since the pandemic. She spoke with one pediatric emergency medicine physician who shared this disturbing example: 

“Daily, families disparage, yell at, and belittle us while we provide care for their children. A few months ago, I asked a father to put his mask back on, per hospital policy. He stormed out of the room and said he was leaving because he did not believe in masks. I came back in, and his six-year-old child told me, ‘Daddy spit on the ground.’ Sure enough, there was a big spit wad on the hospital floor.”

Porath explained how the effects of incivility are so damaging to mental health and can actually interfere with our ability to perform at work. “Dysfunctional and aggressive thoughts (and sometimes actions) can skyrocket,” she said. “Witnessing rudeness and triggers of incivility—such as reading a nasty comment on social media or listening to an argumentative interview—takes a cognitive toll, interfering with our working memory and decreasing our performance.”

How HR can monitor and address safety concerns

When outside factors impact employees’ safety, what are HR and business leaders to do? After all, there’s no way to accurately predict when an angry customer or problematic patient will walk through the door. 

While HR can’t protect every worker from every safety risk all the time, people leaders can do more to show employees that their physical and psychological safety are top priorities and that their concerns will always be heard. As it stands, there is much more to be done in this area.

According to AlertMedia’s 2022 State of Employee Safety Report, only 53% of survey respondents believe their safety is “extremely important” to their employer. There’s also a disconnect between leaders and their team members. The report found that 67% of leaders think their employees feel safe, while just 37% of workers reported actually feeling safe. 

Strategic people leaders have an opportunity to improve the employee experience by putting the training, resources, and policies in place to help workers feel safer and more in control on the job. For frontline employees and managers, this should include protocols on how to de-escalate volatile situations and when to seek additional help. Just like offices have fire drills or practice where to go in case of a tornado, frontline workers should know exactly what to do when their safety is threatened by another person.

“Human resources management is instrumental in creating a safe work environment and proactive, preventative culture,” said Mohammad Farhat Ali Khan, the health and safety lead for a global shipping company. “Human resources professionals play an important role in ensuring employee health and safety, as they know the workplace, the employees, and their job demands.”

Use surveys and feedback to monitor safety concerns

Creating a culture of ongoing feedback between employees and leaders helps to keep the lines of communication open and reduces the chances of being caught off-guard by safety risks.

Tools like employee engagement surveys and pulse surveys can help HR teams uncover safety issues across specific teams or within certain employee groups. Managers and their direct reports should also be meeting regularly for 1-on-1 meetings and check-ins to discuss priorities and challenges. Managers can use this time to ask if employees are encountering any potential safety concerns—before they become bigger threats. 

Champion self-care and coworker-care

For HR leaders, encouraging and enabling self-care in the workplace can help protect employees’ mental health and well-being. This is especially important for frontline workers who regularly encounter bad behavior or verbal abuse from angry patrons.

Fostering a culture that values coworker care can also help protect both the physical safety and mental health of employees. Employees should be encouraged to take care of each other and have teammates’ backs if trouble arises. “See something, say something” should be encouraged, so employees can help protect each other and report any safety issues they see in the workplace. 

No employee should ever have to feel unsafe at work, especially when they didn’t sign up for it. HR leaders are in the best position to lead the charge in creating more comprehensive workplace safety policies and ensure the proper resources are available to all employees.

Find support from HR peers

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