Assaults on staff in the service industry are far from rare. As an employer, have you considered the effect an attack, either in the workplace or on the way to work, might have on morale? Tom Vaughan looks at how self-defence training can prepare employees for the worst.
Think your employees can handle a violent situation? You might need to think again. The British Crime Survey 2007/08, conducted by the Home Office, found that in the preceding 12 months there were approximately 397,000 threats of violence and 288,000 physical assaults by members of the public on British workers.
Ask staff at Domino's whether it's OK to assume violence won't occur and they'll tell you not to be so naïve; regular road rage and targeted muggings means they have a security manager to advise drivers how to stay safe.
In fact, employers have a responsibility to ensure public-facing staff are fully prepared for the worst type of customer. The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 states that employers are expected to take reasonably practicable steps to safeguard their employees against any foreseeable dangers in the workplace, including the risk of being assaulted at work.
Moreover, self-defence training can be an investment in corporate wellbeing, says founder and chief instructor of Premier Self-Defence, Debi Steven.
"If your staff are attacked on the way to work, or even at the weekend, then regardless of whether they are actually in the workplace, it's going to have an effect on them as employees," she says.
"The physical injuries may heal quickly but the emotional side may take a long time."
Self-defence classes rarely take longer than a day, and can be as concise as a four-hour mental and physical training session. Brian Hancock, founder of Harmony Health and Defence, says the first thing employees learn to master in class is staying calm in the face of a potentially violent situation.
"The key to calming people down without getting physical about it is to stay calm yourself," he explains.
"If you chuck petrol on a fire it'll blow up. That calmness and control - how to step back from the situation - is crucial."
Just wearing a uniform can sometimes be enough to draw the ire of a customer, and it's vital that employees learn not to take insults personally.
"I was a special constable for many years and I had a lot of aggression thrown at me just because of the uniform," Hancock says. "When people get angry with you, they are not angry with you personally but at your position. If you take it personally, your anger rises and then you get a battle. When that happens, fists start flying. Self-defence is about teaching self-control."
DEFUSING A SITUATION
Learning how to verbally defuse a situation is as crucial as knowing how to deal with the violence itself, Steven says.
"It's likely that a potentially violent scenario will start with some verbal altercation. I always say that if someone is being verbally aggressive you should try and think ‘why haven't they already hit me?' It's because they aren't mentally prepared to take that step and it's important you don't give them an excuse to get physical."
The first no-no in this situation is saying the wrong thing, Steven says. For example, if they accuse you of doing something wrong, don't deny it.
"It's the same as when someone says ‘Are you looking at me?' and you say ‘No'. They then respond with ‘So you're calling me a liar.'
"You are accusing them of being in the wrong, and bruising their ego, which will inflame the situation," Steven says.
The second rule is don't command them, she adds. "If you tell them to calm down the reaction will be ‘I am calm, do you want to see me when I'm not?' Again, it's denting their ego."
Lastly, keep their ego on the good side of bruised by not threatening to call a manager or chuck them out, she says.
"Instead, say anything to stroke their ego. Once you do that there's a big chance they'll calm down as you are making them feel better about themselves."
Simon Leila, managing director of 360 Self-Defence, says that one of the most important techniques he teaches to employees is how to deal with the adrenalin rush of potential conflict and disarm an angry member of the public without violence.
"There are techniques you can use called verbal and non-verbal disarms. These are nothing to do with physical self-defence but can still render a person disabled for enough time - four, five, six seconds - to get away to a safe haven, such as a busy hotel lobby or wherever it may be," he says.
If the situation does become violent, despite all this, then it's important that staff know their boundaries. Legally, Leila says, so long as the defendant can show they used reasonable force to fend off an attacker, then he or she will escape prosecution.
"In an evidence context it's always taken on what a reasonable person would be expected to do in the circumstances," he says. "It all comes down to the grey area of reasonable force."
Employers are bound to take the same view, Steven says, and employees caught up in a violent situation should be aware of the difference between overpowering someone and attacking them in return.
"If you do have to go physical its important you don't hurt the person too much, as the last thing you want as well as personal injury is to end up in a disciplinary hearing if you hurt them excessively," she says.
Hancock teaches aikido, a martial art that uses the attacker's force against them.
"If someone tries to punch you it's about using that energy, adding your own and becoming stronger than them," he explains.
"There are never any broken bones or bruises; it's about overpowering them and getting them to back off."
Physical self-defence is just as practical for weaker men and women in the face of violence, and shouldn't put them off the training, Leila says.
"In a perfect world we'd teach everyone - no matter how tall - how to walk, talk and act big so that no one would attack them anyway. But, in some situations that bravado could then challenge the ego of the larger person anyway.
"Over the years, we have taught 4ft 11in cops and soldiers to avoid and combat violence just as well as huge towering men."
The key, Steven says, is to overpower the assailant for long enough to buy a window of escape. "If someone shoves you and you shove back it's absolutely the worst thing to do," she says.
"It will bruise their ego and show you are game for a battle. You should do all you can to drop their guard and do one or two things to buy you a window of opportunity and incapacitate them slightly so you can get to safety."
Leila says many of his clients hire 360 Defence's services for a day or a few consecutive days and put employees through the training in the workplace, with the instructor bringing his own mats for the physical aspects.
"Many treat it as team building and rather than going and building a raft somewhere they do this for a day and actually invest in skills the staff might need," he says.
A badly handled conflict in the workplace could not only lose an employer their customer but their employee as well, and with class prices ranging from £50 to £120 per person for a day's training, it seems a small investment to ensure the long-term wellbeing of your staff.
NATIONWIDE SELF-DEFENCE COURSES
http://www.premierself-defence.co.uk" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer">360 Defence](http://www.360defence.co.uk) Prices range from £50 to £120 per person, depending on numbers and the length of the course. Corporate sessions are typically eight hours.
[Harmony Health and Defence ](http://www.harmonydefence.co.uk)£270 for a six-hour course for 10-20 people
[Premier Self DefenceA four-hour course costs about £60 per head.