Patient aggression in intensive care: A qualitative study of staff experiences

Published:April 12, 2022DOI:



      Workplace violence comprises abuse, assaults, threats, and harassment. Reaching epidemic proportions in healthcare, workplace violence compromises staff and patient safety and service efficiency and effectiveness. Although workplace violence is a nontrivial problem in intensive care, little is known about circumstances in which violence occurs in this setting.


      The objective of this study was to describe and reflect upon aggression towards staff in the intensive care unit (ICU) from the perspectives of staff members.


      We investigated workplace violence in a qualitative study with data collected from semistructured interviews with 19 staff members of a 10-bed ICU, analysed using a framework approach.


      All participants reported witnessing or experiencing physical and/or verbal aggression. While acknowledging that ‘any patient’ could become aggressive, participants differentiated ‘any patients admitted for treatment of somatic illnesses’ from ‘dangerous’ patients and interpreted violence differently dependent on characteristics of perpetrators. ‘Dangerousness’ was associated with patients who had a comorbid mental illness. Aggression of ‘dangerous patients’ was construed as intentional and/or ‘normal aberrant’ behaviour for the individual. Staff reported feeling ill-prepared to work effectively with this cohort and having difficulty responding empathically. Mental health services were considered ‘responsible’ for managing patients' drug use, personality, and psychiatric problems.


      Perceived knowledge and skill deficits, as well as stigma when engaging with certain subpopulations, contribute to workplace violence in the ICU setting. ICU staff members seek education and support to improve management of patients and reduce risk of violence. However, effectiveness depends on robust service and organisational commitment and strategies to promote workplace health and safety.


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