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Bullying, harassment and abuse at work - why the law needs to change

Published date
05 Dec 2018
New TUC research shows over half of workers have experienced some form of harassment from the public while going about their jobs - and young workers are especially affected

No one should have to put up with harassment, abuse or violence, especially at work.

Yet today we publish a report that reveals over half of workers have experienced bullying, sexual harassment, verbal abuse or physical assault while going about their jobs.

Workers of any age can be a target, but our research shows young workers are disproportionately affected.

In the run up to Christmas, shopworkers can often bear the brunt of frustrated customers. But getting abused at work shouldn’t be a part of anyone’s Christmas.

If workers are abused by customers, they should know the boss will have their back.

That’s why we’re calling on employers to adopt a zero-tolerance approach to all forms of bullying, harassment and abuse at work.

And we want the government to change the law so that employers must protect their staff from harassment by patients, clients and customers.

Young people worst affected

Because of the sectors they tend to work in (sales, customer service, caring and leisure), young workers are more likely to work with the public.

That means they’re more likely to be a victim of harassment, abuse or violence committed by a customer, client, patient, member of the public or a business contact.

These groups of people are known in law as a “third party” – someone a worker interacts with as part of their job who is not employed by the same employer.

According to our research, over one third (36 per cent) of 18 to 34-year olds who have experienced some form of harassment, abuse or violence at work said it was carried out by a third party.

Constant and daily abuse

Another shocking finding is the amount of times that young workers have to deal with third-party harassment.

70 per cent of those who experienced verbal abuse from third parties have been subjected to it three or more times.

The numbers for bullying and sexual harassment aren’t much better (63 per cent and 57 per cent respectively).

And half of the young workers who’ve been physically or violently assaulted by a third party have been subjected to it three or more times.

Young workers also told us about “constant” and “daily” abuse, ranging from one-off customers to repeat offenders.

No point in reporting

We heard about employers failing to intervene or protect them time and time again, even when the behaviour was reported.

And fewer than half of these young workers reported the incident to their employer in any case.

Two in five were worried about the impact on their relationships at work, over a third didn’t think they would be believed or taken seriously, and nearly one in five thought they’d be blamed.

We surveyed 400 16 to 34 year olds who had experienced some form of third-party harassment. A huge 76 per cent of those who reported report incidents to their employer said nothing changed, or the situation got worse.

This is really starting to take its toll, with nearly two in five young workers feeling less confident at work as a result of the abuse they’d suffered.

37 per cent also said it had a negative impact on their mental health, and 22 per cent said it made them want to leave their job even though they were unable to.

Unacceptable abuse

Suffering abuse from customers and the public really affects young workers.

They go to work every day, and often on the weekend, only to face harassment, abuse or even violence from the people they are trying to help or care for.

We think this has nothing to do with Christmas pressure and everything to do with employers failing to respond to abuse and failing to protect their staff.

And it’s made worse by zero-hour contracts, insecure work and a lack of workplace rights.

That’s why the government must do more to ensure employers understand their duties to protect workers.

And we’re clear that bosses need to do much more for their staff when incidents arise – and much more to stop them happening in the first place.