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The Dangers of Working in a Psychiatric Hospital

Psychiatric hospitals can be challenging places to work. Most of the people admitted to inpatient facilities are suffering from acute mental illness like psychosis. This can make them prone to violent and unpredictable behavior, putting psychiatric nurses and doctors at an increased risk of experiencing aggression in the workplace.

As well as patient violence, workers in psychiatric hospitals have to contend with a range of other hazards including assaults by family members, slips, trips and falls and exposure to viruses and infection. These numerous risk factors have contributed to healthcare and social assistance workers experiencing more injuries and illnesses in the workplace than employees in any other industry.

Understanding the dangers involved with working in a psychiatric hospital, and actively working to address and mitigate them, is the best way for healthcare providers to protect mental health workers and the patients they treat

What is it Like Working in Mental Health?

Mental health is a varied specialty and the experience of working in the field will be different for each individual. While some mental health professionals will choose to work in an inpatient psychiatric hospital, others may opt to work in outpatient psychiatric services and treat those with less acute conditions.

Doctors and registered nurses that choose to work on an inpatient psychiatric ward will often find that they’re treating the most severe cases. These are the patients who are at a high risk of displaying violent or threatening behavior and of injuring themselves or others. Studies have shown that up to 76% of patients in inpatient mental health facilities display aggressive behavior. This means that many healthcare workers will experience violence on a daily basis.

Regular exposure to violence in the workplace can result in staff members themselves developing a range of mental health conditions. A number of studies have found links between workplace violence and poor mental health.

However, while working in mental health care has its difficulties many doctors, nurses, and support staff find the work incredibly rewarding. The varied nature of the job means that there are always new things to learn and new challenges to overcome, something many health care workers draw great satisfaction from.

What Occupational Hazards Do Psychiatrists and Psych Nurses Face?

There are a number of occupational hazards psychiatric professionals face that are fairly universal and unavoidable. Because patients with severe mental health issues are more likely to exhibit erratic and unpredictable behavior, one of the most common of these hazards is workplace violence.

Inpatient violence is not uncommon in mental health facilities, psychiatric wards, and in both private and public health clinics in general. Sentinel and adverse events play a role here. Many psychiatric nurses unfortunately see violence as part of the job. And, although many hospitals that provide mental health services actively work to reduce violence, it’s still a hazard many mental health workers continue to face.

As well as workplace violence, psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses face the same hazards as other healthcare professionals. These include exposure to viruses and infection, trips, slips and falls, and injuries caused by other workplace incidents.

Patient Assault

Patient assaults are a serious issue in most psychiatric hospitals. Mental health conditions like schizophrenia can make patients more likely to become violent. As psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses work with patients with these conditions every day, they’re at a significantly increased risk of experiencing violence in the workplace.

Work Environment Social Clash

Mental health nursing can have a significant impact on workers’ social and personal lives. During their shift, a psychiatric technician might be exposed to patients exhibiting violent behavior, severe psychosis or a range of other mental illnesses. This can increase levels of stress and even result in the staff member developing PTSD or STS (secondary traumatic stress).

While co-workers will understand the pressures mental health workers face, their friends and family may not. This can make it difficult for psychiatric professionals to discuss their work with their loved ones. Over time, this could result in alienation, depression and the breakdown of relationships.

Effects on Physical Health

Exposure to regular workplace violence can have serious consequences for both the physical and mental wellbeing of psychiatrists and psych nurses. The assaults themselves often result in physical injury. These injuries can cause staff members to take time off work and suffer long term ill-health.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, health and social workers suffer more workplace injuries than employees in any other industry. While many of these will be caused by slips, trips and falls, a large number will also be the result of assault.

Effects on Mental Health

Seeing and experiencing workplace violence on a regular basis can also take a severe toll on mental health. Figures show that frequent exposure to violence in the workplace can result in increased risk of depression. Stress, burnout and anxiety are also known to affect large numbers of mental health workers.

Stress Induced by Workplace Violence

Being exposed to workplace violence on a regular basis can be incredibly stressful. Seeing colleagues assaulted by their patients, and experiencing violence themselves, can put mental health workers on edge and make it difficult for them to relax, even when they’ve left the hospital.

In some cases, being around violence in the workplace can result in secondary traumatic stress or STS. This is a syndrome whose symptoms include fatigue, irritability, reduced productivity, feelings of hopelessness, anger, despair, sadness, nightmares and anxiety. STS often occurs when people work in an environment where violence is commonplace. Even if they themselves don’t experience violence they can suffer many of the mental health issues associated with an assault.

How to Manage the Dangers

Managing the dangers of psychiatric care is key to improving working conditions for mental health providers. Creating a safe and secure work environment will help to reduce patient violence, reassure staff that their well-being is a priority and make it easier for healthcare professionals to meet patient needs.

The first step in reducing workplace violence is identifying the risks. The best way to do this is to carry out a review of past incidents to get a better idea of the context and triggers that are most likely to result in aggressive or violent behavior.

Once these risks have been identified, they need to be assessed. While some of these risks will be unavoidable – psychiatric patients in mental hospitals will always be prone to violent outbursts – others will be more easily managed. It’s these manageable risk factors that health care providers should focus on when working to reduce violence in the workplace.

Risk factors that are known to increase the likelihood of a patient becoming violent include:

  • Substance abuse
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Mental illness
  • Long wait times
  • Poor lighting
  • Cramped waiting rooms
  • Poor communication from the healthcare worker

Research has shown that male patients and family members are more likely to become violent than women. Studies also indicate that male workers are more likely to suffer violence in the workplace and that younger, less experienced, psychiatry professionals are at greater risk than those who have been working in the field for a more considerable amount of time. Figures also show that assaults are most likely to occur during the night shift and least likely to take place during morning shifts.

Addressing issues involving the built environment is one of the easiest and most effective ways of reducing violence in the workplace. Introducing enhanced security procedures, such as electronic entry systems and close circuit cameras, should help security personnel to better control who has access to the psychiatric unit.

Installing a panic button solution in the psych ward can also help to improve staff and patient safety. When a panic button is activated, it sends the user’s location straight to security personnel. This allows nurses, doctors and support staff to summon help quickly and silently if they feel threatened or experience violent behavior.

Improved training is an important way to tackle violence in the workplace and reduce the prevalence of patient assaults. Staff members should be trained in de-escalation techniques, self-defense and communication.

Mental health professionals face a range of dangers in the workplace. These dangers should never be seen as simply part of the job. Instead, employers should work to reduce risks and raise safety standards, creating a more secure environment in the process.

To learn more about how to evaluate the need for a panic button solution, please download this free checklist.  To find out how our panic button systems are already protecting healthcare workers around the world, contact a member of our team today. Request a Demo.

About Author

Yasmine Mustafa

Yasmine Mustafa believes ROAR found her, not the other way around. A former refugee and undocumented immigrant, she draws upon her unique life experiences to lead ROAR in its mission to empower and protect workers across all industries. Her journey is a testament to resilience and unwavering commitment. With over 15 years of leadership in the tech industry, including the successful sale of her first company, 123LinkIt, to a firm in Silicon Valley in 2009, Yasmine is a driving force for positive change, balancing profits with purpose. Yasmine’s workplace safety advocacy and leadership have earned recognition from the BBC, CNBC’s Upstart 100 and the City of Philadelphia. Yasmine is a highly sought-after conference speaker. A two-time TEDx speaker, Yasmine has also presented at the prestigious SXSW and CES conferences, sharing her deep passion for harnessing technology for positive change. Beyond her professional life, Yasmine enjoys time spent with friends and family, exploring the outdoors, biking, and hiking. She also dedicates her time to the boards of Coded by Kids, Leadership Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia Alliance for Capital and Technologies.

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