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Respect in the face of violence: Keeping everybody safe

Nick Smiar

The true professional has not only the knowledge and the skills to deliver services within an ethical context, but also an ability to employ the self in a disciplined manner in the service of the client. The professional recognizes that mood and attitude can affect performance, and so she or he comes to the work situation prepared to do the work and prepared to exercise self-discipline, even in the face of verbal or physical onslaughts.

When the professional is assaulted verbally or physically, the expectation is that she or he will "keep cool" and "act professionally." Because the fight-flight response is automatic, if that person does not have a plan for maintaining or regaining self-control and does not recognize that higher cognitive functions are not able to provide critical thinking or logical analysis at that point, there is a high risk that he or she will react without consideration of professional obligations (Rosenbaum, 1988). In a review of actions taken, the professional cannot appeal to professional status or autonomy but must be able to make the link between clear assessment of the situation and the specific interventions employed. It no longer is sufficient to say, "In my professional judgment ..."

For those who work with volatile clients and in potentially dangerous environments, stress and burnout are everyday realities. Stress research tells us that stress is bad ("malstress" or "distress") or good ("eustress"), depending on the individual’s perception and assessment of the stressor (Selye, 1976). Motivation for entering into and remaining in an occupation or profession plays an important role in this perception. An examination of motivation for doing this job rather than some other, less stressful job will clarify for the professional just what it is that brought him or her to the job and what keeps her or him coming back each day.

Low motivation or a motivation unrelated to the job itself will lead to cynicism and pessimism, usually expressed in demeaning statements to and attitudes about clients. The poorly motivated or burned-out staff member is an extremely high risk; the risk is that the stressed or burned-out person will overreact to assaultive behaviors, will fail to respond, or will fail to support others who are responding (Thompson & Page, 1992; Thompson, Page, & Cooper, 1993).


Rosenbaum. M. (1988). Self-control under stress: The role of learned resourcefulness. Advances in Behavior Research and Therapy, 11(4). 249-258.

Selye. H. (1976). Stress in health and disease. Boston: Butterworth.

Thompson. M.S. & Page. S.L. (1992). Psychological determinants of occupational burnout. Stress Medicine. 8(3). 151-159.

Thompson. M.S., Page. S.L.. & Cooper. C.L. (1993). A test of Carver and Scheier’s self-control model of stress in exploring burnout among mental health nurses. Stress Medicine, 9(4). 221-235.

Smiar, N.P. (1995) Respect in the face of violence: Keeping everybody safe. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 4(2), pp.34-38

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