During the pandemic we all came to together as a community. We clapped for the nurses; we cared about social distancing; we baked cakes for each other and checked on the vulnerable in our community. However, since then things have really changed. Research shows that customer-facing workers in all sectors report greater hostility. The RMT union says 58% of workers have been abused since the pandemic began.
Half of all shop, transport, restaurant and hotel workers and others dealing regularly with the public have experienced abuse in the past six months, figures from the Institute for Customer Service (ICS) show. This is a 6% rise over May’s 44%. Of those who had been abused, 27% had been physically attacked, it found.
USDAW, the shopworkers’ union, said 88% of its members had been verbally abused in the past year – up from 68% in 2019 – and 9% had been physically assaulted. RMT said 58% of workers on trains, buses and ferries had been threatened, assaulted or spat at since the pandemic began, and 88% had been verbally abused. The British Retail Consortium said incidents of violence and abuse had risen to 455 a day in 2020-21 compared with 350 a day in 2017-18.
I suspect that there are many more cases than this. Workers have become used to it and possibly no longer complain. We cannot expect the Police to be everywhere. We cannot explain poorly paid ‘security’ staff to stop breaches of the peace. We cannot expect ‘ASBOs’ to be served and enforced on millions of people.
The impact on mental health and wellbeing is severe, according to the ICS, with many leaving their jobs as a result. With 61% of the workforce in public-facing roles, there is also an economic cost in staff turnover and sick days, which the ICS puts at £33bn a year.
The NHS has also been affected. GPs and receptionists warned this month that many are quitting over abuse from patients, while NHS trusts are concerned that many A&E staff are considering moving to less stressful roles because of hostility.
A study of 12,000 UK teachers and found 40% of primary teachers and 20% of secondary school teachers had reported negative parental behaviour.
So, I am supporting the ‘Service with Respect’ Campaign. which calls for organisations to take a zero-tolerance approach to staff abuse, for members of the public to stop and think, and for the government to legislate. However, I don’t think that legislation will, in reality, change all that much. What needs to change is what is in our heads.
I think that there are 3 reasons for the increase:
- Social media. The worst comments and threats that are made to me through all branches of social media invariably come from anonymous accounts. I think people feel that because we don’t know who they are they cannot be held to account, and they can say what they like. Often these Tweets and Facebook entries are pure garbage with incorrect information and an assumption that I can do far more than the limited powers available to a councillor.
Of course, people have a right to question and criticise me and if they do it in a reasonable way, I am delighted to open up a dialogue. Abuse me and I’ll ignore you.
- We are now far more knowledgeable about our rights and less so on our responsibilities. Sometimes we assume rights that we do not have in a society that is becoming more self-centred and less community centred.
What people want is not necessarily the same as what they are entitled to. Sometimes what they are entitled to cannot be delivered because of pandemic or other reasons. A case in point is a personal appointment with a GP. GPs cannot provide the service that they want to because of the pressures of Covid. Yet some people rant at receptionists as if it’s their fault.
- Standards of conduct in public life are sadly declining. There is little long-term data, but a study by York University’s Dr Maurice Waddle of exchanges at prime minister’s questions over 37 years, shows that prime ministers have become increasingly personal towards their opponent. That may have reflected, or led, a coarsening of public debate in newspapers and online.
We can see that too in Liverpool where standards have actually improved since the change of political leadership and enhanced training for councillors in behaviour. Full council meetings used to be an aggressive and bullying place. Now the council meetings are quite tedious with the only verbal fisticuffs being between Labour councillors after the meeting!
I haven’t got a magic wand to sort all this out. I can however listen more and behave more respectfully to others including my political opponents. Most members of Liverpool Council are decent people who want the best for our city. It’s just that we have different ideas, sometimes quite minimal, about what best is and how we get there.
So, my challenge to you is this, “If I can be nice why can’t you?” It’s not the conductor’s fault if the train you are on is running late and you will miss a connection. It’s not the shop worker’s fault if your favourite brand is missing or you are having to queue longer than you would normally expect to.
Most workers go to work and want to do a good job for their clients and customers. Things would be so much better if we treated everyone that we meet in the same way that we would like to be treated ourselves.