Why was the study done?
Regular exposure to potentially psychologically traumatic events (PPTE) is common in public safety personnel (PSP). This increase in PPTE exposure also increases the risk of developing symptoms of mental health disorders. Workplace violence, which consists of threats of violence as well as verbal and physical violence, is often directed at PSP by the public they serve.
While workplace violence occurs regularly, very little research has been done to explore the effects of workplace violence on PSP mental health. PSP may also view these workplace violence incidents differently, which means that some PSP might be more affected than others by violence in the workplace.
The goals of the current study are:
- to determine if there is a relationship between workplace violence and symptoms of depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- to determine if PSP’s negative thoughts/ideas about incidents of workplace violence mediate the possible relationship between workplace violence and reported mental health symptoms.
What was done in the study?
Paramedics and firefighters from a large urban Canadian service were recruited to the study. In total, 246 participants (117 firefighters, 129 paramedics) completed all the measures, including depression, anxiety, and PTSD. They also completed a measure of posttraumatic thoughts/ideas (e.g., a belief the world is dangerous, blame for the event, personal vulnerability), the newly developed First Responder workplace violence scale, and two questions about exposure to risk for body or life in the past year.
What did we find out?
- Paramedics reported a higher frequency of workplace violence in the past month than firefighters.
- There was no difference between groups on past year threats to body or life.
- The most common workplace violence act was verbal assault, which was reported by 95.9% of participants, followed by physical assault (71.1%) and threats of violence (63.4%).
- In the past year, 60% of participants reported feeling like their lives were at risk at work, while 80% said they felt they were at risk of severe physical injury at work in the past year.
- Higher levels of workplace violence in the past month and frequency of past year threats were related to higher levels of reported depression, anxiety, and PTSD symptoms.
- Past month workplace violence and the number of past year incidents were related to negative posttraumatic thoughts/ideas. These thoughts and ideas were also associated with higher symptoms of depression, anxiety, and PTSD. This result suggests a mediating relationship between negative thoughts/ideas and mental health disorder symptoms.
Where do we go from here?
There are some limits to the study: it is a sample from one larger service, and the measures were all self-report. However, this study suggests that workplace violence incidents, and how PSP think and feel about these incidents, impact their mental health. The suggested mediation of symptoms by negative thoughts/ideas of workplace violence provides an area where organizations can help improve PSP mental health. Organizations can help combat and reduce negative thoughts/ideas about incidents by improving PSP safety practices, enhancing reporting of violence, debriefing after an event, reducing barriers to reporting workplace violence, and having on-site supports. Education on the psychological impacts of workplace violence is also a critical component of improving PSP mental health.
The original wording of the study was changed and condensed for the current research summary.
Setlack, J., Brais, N., Keough, M., & Johnson, E.A. (2020). Workplace violence and psychopathology in paramedics and firefighters: Mediated by posttraumatic cognitions. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science/ Revue Canadienne des sciences du comportement. https://doi.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fcbs0000240
Lay summary prepared by Kossick, E. Edited & reviewed by Baroots, B. & E. Johnson.