CRITICALLY CONSIDERING YOUR SAFETY- Are you safeguarded against service users?

Imagine receiving a crisis call and wanting to assist. You know that you have the professional expertise to assist, and you have the passion to help people. However, you never know what you would find on your way to the individual who has made the call, or upon entering the home or setting where the call has come from. You enter an unfamiliar area alone, often with limited back-up, no weapons, and no way to protect yourself.

What is not often spoken about, is that this scenario is quite common in the healthcare field. Social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, medics, nurses, occupational therapists, and other members of the helping professions are frequently exposed to unstable and potentially violent situations. It is mind-blowing to read that higher rates of violent incidents are reported in health and social sciences than in all other industries combined. 


On the 14th of December 2013, Deon Kondos began his day with the intention of supervising a visit between a father and his child. When the father pulled out a gun and started shooting, he killed the social worker, the child’s mother, the stepfather, and then himself. During 2015, a social worker in Rustenburg was killed when he intervened in a domestic violence case (Ola, 2018) and in 2016 another social worker was killed while attending to a case in Malamulede area (Gazankulu, 2018). Nokuthula Dlamini, a social worker, wrote an open letter to the Minister of Social Development in 2017 in which she pleaded to the minister to improve the working conditions of social workers. During the same year, a social worker in Empangeni was stabbed to death. The most recent reported incident in South Africa, was in 2021 in Pietermaritzburg, Sithembile Vilakazi, brutally murdered in an allegedly orchestrated incident, approximately three months after the murder of her husband – both of them were social workers.

When helping professionals engage with service users, it is often because service users are encountering stressful or crisis circumstances. Research has found that the intensity of stressors and crises, whether physical, cognitive, psychological, or spiritual, can have an impact on service users’ thoughts and behaviors. In the event that a service user is under the influence of alcohol or substances, has a history of mental illness, or faces any developmental delays, it contributes to having a distorted perception of reality and/or lower cognitive capacity, which can cause difficulties with impulse control and related aggressiveness.

Service users would at times engage in physical violence, emotional abuse, verbal attack, property damage, and sexual assault (collectively known as client violence) against helping professionals. Younger helping professionals are more likely to experience all categories of client violence. In a 2014 paper Malesa, Kgashane Johannes confirms that younger professionals are particularly vulnerable when the service users they serve are older than they are. Furthermore, helping professionals with little experience are more likely to face various forms of client violence. In this context, it is a mystery why there are limited protocols and regulations by government and employers to protect and safeguard professionals against violence from service users.

My PhD research focused on client violence and the protection of social workers in South Africa.  The purpose of the study was to learn more about the nature of client violence against social workers and the factors that may contribute to it;  to better understand client violence in the context of South Africa and to explore the relative risk of social workers being exposed to client violence occurrences; to  identify relevant international and national policies, frameworks, protocols and guidelines that could inform the development of a policy framework to enhance the protection of social workers and finally, to design a concept policy framework that was reviewed and refined before it was submitted to key role players in the social work profession.  

A focus on these aspects did not only assist our understanding of the phenomenon, but also ensured a better understanding of professional and client risk profiles, the lived experiences of social workers, as well as incredible insights on how to properly manage the client violence cycle. International guidance and inspiration assisted with the development of a reliable concept policy brief and policy framework for the South African setting.

Image: Extraction of first section of policy brief developed during this research study.

The policy brief and policy framework presently include programs to make social worker safety and security a national priority, programs to establish a safety culture in the workplace, and initiatives to support social worker safety in the office, while traveling, and during site visits. Local experts and stakeholders in the social work profession was consulted to review and refine the policy framework. The current version is a practical guide, with ready-to-use templates and visual aids, that may be consulted and immediately implemented by practitioners and stakeholders.

Image: The policy framework includes a set of visual guidelines of initiatives to support social work safety. Example of some home visit guidelines.

And while this particular study focused on the social work discipline specifically, the findings can be translated to other disciplines as well. After all, this critical issue affects health and social science sectors, as well as all helping professions who engage with service users. Who will be responsible for ensuring the safety of helping professionals when they provide care to service users? This policy may be a first step for stakeholders to answer the question.

Imagine receiving a crisis call and responding confidently, because you are assured that you will be safe to do your work. This makes an enormous difference to you, the service user, and the overall workplace.

Additional references:

Gazankulu, O. 2018. Social workers killed on duty [e-mail]. 13 Nov 2018. South Africa.

Ola, O. 2018.  2018. Social workers killed on duty [e-mail]. 13 Nov 2018. South Africa.

THE MOSAIC OF ACADEMIA: TOWARDS ACADEMIC EXCELLENCE

Mosaics have mesmerized people across the world with their vibrant colors and distinct style. This beautifully constructed colored craft, which dates back at least 4000 years, offers an eye-catching approach to art and adornment. Mosaics are artworks made up of tesserae (small pieces of glass, stone, or other nature-based materials). Designs can be simple or complex, and they can feature geometric patterns, animals, people, or simply be abstract. The tesserae will be formed by the artist, who will usually cut them into squares or use specific equipment to shape them. The tiles or fragments are then organized into patterns, portraits, and other decorative designs using an adhesive and grout. No fragment is considered invaluable; each one finds a way to contribute to the work of art.

WIP

My work-in-progress design (created via make-a-mosaic)

To have a successful and fulfilling career as an academic, I strive to perform, achieve, and/or succeed in scholastic activities that comprise what we think of as academic excellence. There are numerous days when staying focused and goal-oriented is quite easy. I have to admit though that there are some days when staying motivated proves harder. Personally, I like to think of these as “moments” rather than “days”. Looking back on these moments in my life, I can see how they have all contributed to the current artwork I have. Each moment, a mosaic piece of the design.

Let’s start with the base and basic  tesserae:

I’ve always known that I am interested in academics.  When I think back to my school days, I remember enjoying difficult tasks and research assignments.  Tertiary education opened up a whole new world to me, and opportunities to present in classrooms or subsequently, to host guest lecturers, quickly became distinguishing tesserae in my mosaic. Later on, I got the opportunity to interact with students and provide ad-hoc lectures, which was a dream come true. I absolutely love research, and the thrill of making a breakthrough or learning something new may keep me enthralled for a long time! And then, there are conferences; each one offers a unique viewpoint, so what’s not to like?

Then there are some tesserae that don’t quite fit; over time, a nipper or clipper is used to shape the tesserae for the artwork. I found the bureaucracy and general rules of the various systems and research institutions to be the most challenging.  Each has its own set of interrelationships, which can be complicated. Another challenge has been maintaining my academic and research voice. We are all aware of the research process, and it is a continuous process of editing and refining between selection committees, scientific committees, and publications who provide input and feedback. I recall having a lot of controversy on my PhD selection committee, and barely being able to sign my name after receiving feedback from publications.

But these were fleeting moments, fragments of a larger work of art. These little fragments appear negligible on their own. Someone may walk by and dump these small shards of material out of a tray of tesserae, not appreciating their potential. The artist, on the other hand, knows exactly where these small parts belong. These mosaic pieces, which may appear trivial to others, are what distinguish a masterpiece from a work of art. Working in different systems and finding my feet has also aided me in developing a community and inclusive culture that values, respects, and engages with individual differences, diversity of viewpoints, and diversity of cultures. Finding my voice has aided in the development of critical thinking, professionalism, and leadership abilities. And if somebody tells me I don’t have the ability to do something, well just watch  me, you’ll be amazed at the results! Each mosaic piece contributed to the creation of my own work of art – my goal of academic excellence.

I’ve also learned about the importance of adhesives and grout, which will be used to ensure the tesserae adhere to the base material and fill in the gaps for added strength and longevity. For me, this has been an excellent mentorship. I’ve been fortunate enough to find a mentor who has helped me by guiding me, advising me, opening my mind, encouraging me when things don’t go my way, and reminding me to keep on track with my goals. My artwork has gained strength courtesy of a terrific mentor, encouraging colleagues, and being in right place in my career.

My craft is not yet finished, it is a work in progress. 

But I adore how each step of my academic journey can be included into the overall design, and I can’t wait to see the final product. Have you ever reflected on the events that shaped your academic career? Perhaps you’d want to use this fantastic online tool to illustrate these moments? Who knows, maybe you’ll start your own mosaic project 😊.