Professionals who work in rural and remote Australia face some unique challenges when compared to their urban counterparts. For some, these challenges may make them more susceptible to workplace violence, or make the impact of workplace violence more serious.
Rural and remote communities are not homogenous and within these communities there are different challenges that impact on the safety of professionals. Notwithstanding this, research suggests that the following represent general risk factors for professionals in rural and remote Australia.
Lack of Anonymity
In small rural and remote areas, everybody knows the local health professionals, teachers and police. This makes it difficult for them to be ‘off duty’. Problems can arise when community members have unrealistic expectations of professionals (for example, that these workers will be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week)
The types of cultural issues in rural and remote communities can vary considerably. In some communities, cultural issues are complex and multi-faceted. Ignorance of a community’s cultural norms can result in unintended breaches of community protocols which can lead to people taking offence, tension, and potentially conflict.
Mandatory reporting requirements
There can be practical difficulties surrounding mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse in rural and remote communities, where there may be a lack of anonymity and community preference to resolve issues internally.
Distance management and support
The managers and co-workers of professionals in rural and remote locations can sometimes be located some distance away from them. This may impact on the capacity of the workplace to be a safe environment and on the support that can be provided following a violent incident.
Professionals’ concerns in rural and remote Australia
A survey of over 600 health professionals, teachers and police in rural and remote Australia looked at to the extent to which professionals feel concerned about various forms of workplace violence. Survey respondents were most concerned about verbal abuse and physical violence from community members. They were least concerned about sexual abuse/assault and bullying/harassment by their colleagues.
The survey also asked respondents about other concerns about their jobs not specifically related to workplace violence. The results showed that respondents were most concerned about working long and/or unsociable hours, and working on their own.
These findings can provide guidance to employers on measures they can take to make their employees feel safer in the workplace. For example, if professionals in rural and remote communities are most concerned about physical violence and verbal abuse from community members, then training in recognising and de-escalating aggressive behaviour may be warranted. Likewise, if professionals are concerned about working long and/or unsociable hours or working on their own, then employers should, where possible, reconsider rostering practices with a view to avoiding such situations.
The survey found that the concerns of professionals differed across sectors. This is unsurprising given professionals in the health, education and police sectors have different skill sets, different challenges in the workplace, and different education and training.
Health professionals were more likely than education or police professionals to report concerns about bullying and harassment by colleagues, which suggests violence prevention policies in the health sector may need to consider the issue of colleague-initiated violence. Education professionals were more likely than police and health professionals to express concern for driving in rural and remote locations, which suggests driver training may need to be incorporated into induction training for teachers relocating to rural and remote communities. Police were more likely than health or education professionas to express concern for conducting home visits, working on their own, and going about their business in a community where people might know who they are. This suggests consideration may need to be given to having joint patrols in jurisdictions where they are not currently mandatory.
Click here for strategies to prevent workplace violence, and respond to some of the challenges faced by rural and remote professionals.