10 September 2021

Study aims to prevent violence against staff working in residential care


Staff working in residential care institutions for children and youth are regularly exposed to violence and threats at work. A new study funded by the Danish Working Environment Research Fund aims to identify the triggers of threats and violence and what the staff can do to prevent these episodes.

Grabbing by the collar. Photo: Pexels (Keira Burton)
Photo: Pexels (Keira Burton)

Specialist childcare workers employed in residential care for placed children and youth subject themselves to considerable risk by going to work: Almost one in two have been threatened with violence within the past 12 months, and more than one in three have been exposed to violence. This makes them the occupational group who is most exposed to work-related violence.

The bleak figures constitute the basis of a new study at the Department of Sociology, which is funded by the Working Environment Research Fund and intends to increase our knowledge of situations that result in threats or violence, and how conflicts between staff and placed children and youth emerge and escalate.

“The study is the first of its kind to conduct detailed behavioural analyses of conflictual situations in Danish residential institutions. It will thus be able to provide much needed, tangible knowledge of the situations and behavioural patterns that affect the risk of violence facing the staff,” says PhD Fellow Camilla Bank Friis from the Department of Sociology, who in a postdoc position will have the primary responsibility for the project.

A workday with the risk of threats and violence stands in stark contrast to a good working environment. That is why it is so important that we increase our knowledge of and ability to prevent conflicts in these institutions.

Camilla Bank Friis

The aim of the project is to equip the staff with better tools for decoding situations that can lead to threats or violence and, through their own behaviour, help them de-escalate tensions. At the same time, the project will identify triggers of fear, powerlessness, exhaustion and other emotional responses among the staff.

“The study focusses on helping staff in institutions deal with the conflicts that emerge in their work with a highly vulnerable group of children and youth, who from an early stage in life have experienced social and psychological difficulties. Besides trying to identify ways of preventing conflicts, we intend to determine which situations have the greatest effect on the staff and how their way of handling these situations affects their emotional reaction,” says Camilla Bank Friis.

Analyses of conflictual situations

The researchers behind the study will be conducting systematic surveys of concrete incidents through interviews with staff in three residential institutions and reports of use of force to the National Board of Social Services. The aim is to systematically analyse differences between incidents that either did not escalate, escalated into threats or escalated into violence.

These analyses will be supplemented with fieldwork in three residential care institutions, which is meant to give the researchers background knowledge of the challenges facing these institutions and their staff.

Altogether, the study should uncover the main factors that cause conflicts to escalate. These could be specific everyday activities in the institution leading to conflict or the relation between the child and the employee. Furthermore, the analyses will focus on how staff behaviour affects the probability of violence and threats.

Finally, Camilla Bank Friis hopes the study can help improve the well-being and working environment of the staff in the around 400 open and secure residential care institutions in the country and the more than 1,000 other institutions offering socio-educational support.

“A workday with the risk of threats and violence stands in stark contrast to a good working environment. That is why it is so important that we increase our knowledge of and ability to prevent conflicts in these institutions.”

Also read the Working Environment Research Fund’s mention of the project (in Danish).