‘The lack of humanity eats away at you’: Frontline workers spill out bad encounters on the job
Unreasonable parents and abuse from patients are what security officers and nurses must deal with, but some things about the job may be worse, CNA Insider finds out in the podcast series Heavy Duty.
SINGAPORE: Not in the least bit surprised. That was how Bryan Loo felt after reading about the driver who pushed a security guard with his Bentley to get into Red Swastika School earlier this year.
“It’s par for the course,” he said. “This one incident gets published, but I’m pretty sure there are 20 to 30 other instances that go unpublished.”
The 61-year-old driver and his son, who allegedly owns the Bentley, were charged this month in connection with the incident.
When Loo, 36, was a school security officer between 2019 and 2020, there was also one couple who wanted to drive into the school he was at, and they did not want to explain why.
“They could’ve said, ‘My child is sick’ or ‘I have an appointment with the principal’ — anything at all,” said Loo, who told the couple that requiring school visitors to have a valid reason for entering was the Education Ministry’s policy.
But the couple got only “more belligerent”. “At one point, because this was a Catholic school, they said, ‘Do you know that I know the Archbishop personally?’” Loo recounted. They also wanted to take down his particulars.
He had to bite back a sarcastic reply and eventually let them through because they kept inching their car forward. But he ran to the front office to tell the staff about this couple who refused to give a reason for their visit.
On the job at schools for a year, he faced other unreasonable people as well, mostly parents, he told CNA Insider in a Heavy Duty podcast episode featuring frontline workers who see the dark side of human nature at work.
Listen to the frontline workers braving rudeness and abuse:
‘WHY THE HELL DO I HAVE TO LISTEN TO YOU?’
Security officers are often in a no-win situation, Loo lamented.
“Security officers are damned if you’re there and damned if you aren’t. If you aren’t, I’m sure parents will go, ‘What? There’s not even a jaga (guard) to make sure my kids don’t wander (off) or unsavoury people don’t wander in?’” he said.
“But when you’re there and you try to enforce the rules, you get eye-rolling, you get people going, ‘Why the hell do I have to listen to you? Who are you exactly?’”
He got his security licence in 2019 after a friend had obtained one and said it was relatively easy to get. Loo was not getting many jobs as a freelance copywriter at the time and was looking for an income supplement.
He had only N levels before working as a chef, photographer and copywriter.
He had skipped school “a lot” in Secondary Four and did not turn up for one component of his English language paper. He was marked absent for the entire paper, which “effectively trashed (his) N level certificate”.
According to Loo, the school was not keen to let him continue in Secondary Five, so he opted for the hospitality school, Shatec.
But at the age of 17, he was “too ill-disciplined” to travel from Hougang to Bukit Batok early in the morning for classes and dropped out after nearly a year. He took his O and A levels as a private candidate only years later.
The insults he hates most are people asking if he is stupid. “I have my own pride, and often I think, ‘Man, if I’d gone to university, I’d be your superior,’” he said.
But unkind comments and inadvertent insults were what he heard regularly as a security officer, even from well-meaning people. For instance, some bosses told him, “You should think about your future because you don’t want to end up like your colleagues.”
“This lack of humanity … does eat away at you,” said Loo, who felt that the most disheartening part about the job was being treated as if he was invisible.
There were, however, students who said hello and teachers who offered to buy him coffee and made sure their students greeted him. “Those are the warm moments when you feel, thank God somebody recognises that you’re there,” he said.
But more often than not, they “treat you as one of the ‘lessers’”, people they see no reason to talk to, he added.
Loo, who is now an operations manager, said his time as a security officer affirmed a belief he already had: That people tend not to treat with respect those they do not deem to be their equals.
He believes the solution is elusive. “Even if you treat another (person) as a fellow human being, you might still see yourself as intellectually superior or more cultured,” he said. “People tend to want to be unique, be better.”
To him, the bottom line is this: People should not put others down to feel better about themselves.
“You might never do (menial roles), but maybe just afford (these workers) a little bit of dignity,” he said, referring to cleaners, security officers and people who hand out flyers.
Give people the dignity of their labour.”
ABUSE ISN’T WORST PART OF THE JOB
Loo did not encounter physical abuse on the job, but the same cannot be said of two other frontline workers CNA Insider spoke to: Two nurses, one of whom recently quit.
While healthcare workers have been lauded for their sacrifices during the pandemic, instances of abuse and harassment have risen. Between January and November last year, about 1,400 cases of abuse and harassment of healthcare workers were reported in public institutions.
This was higher than the 1,300 cases in 2020, 1,200 cases in 2019 and 1,080 cases in 2018, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said in a parliamentary reply this year.
“I think almost every healthcare worker would have (experienced verbal abuse) at some point in their career,” said Audrey (not her real name), who is in her 20s and has worked at a public hospital for three years.
She has experienced both physical and verbal abuse as well as sexual harassment.
One of the worst episodes involved a patient who, unprovoked, would curse her and her family. “She’d curse my parents … and (say) she hopes I die,” recalled Audrey, who requested anonymity as she is not authorised to speak to the media.
“Imagine hearing that for the whole of your shift — eight hours — for a few weeks, during the entire admission. It’s difficult.”
The patient also hit her on the head once when Audrey was draining her catheter. And she would claw the nurses whenever they had to take blood from her. When they held on to her limbs, she would spit and try to bite them.
The nurses wondered if she had psychiatric issues, but doctors who evaluated her found none.
More can be done to prevent abuse, said Audrey and former nurse Lee, 32, who left the profession two months ago after nearly three years and asked to be known only by his surname.
The laws against abusing public healthcare workers are “not very well-enforced”, according to Audrey.
“They have the Act printed and pasted on walls in my hospital, but at the same time, nobody tells (patients) that it’s against the law to speak this way to us.”
Under the Protection from Harassment Act, offences against public healthcare workers going about their duties are dealt with more severely, the Ministry of Health highlighted in March. Offenders can be fined up to S$5,000 and/or jailed for up to 12 months.
Public healthcare institutions also have established processes for staff who are verbally or physically harassed. These include referral to security officers on site or reporting to the police, the ministry said.
Often, it is confused patients who lash out, said Audrey and Lee. Patients could be confused for various reasons: Disease, malnutrition such as lack of sodium or even because they have not pooed for a while, said Audrey.
She had a patient, however, who feigned confusion and threw faeces from her diaper on the floor because she wanted attention from the staff.
The worst part of the job is not the abuse, said Audrey. It is dealing with demands from patients and their relatives in the face of other urgent tasks.
“Having to juggle all of that, trying to make sure your patients stay alive … trying to go home on time,” she cited.
“The most difficult thing is when people don’t understand that you have a lot of things on your plate, and they still consistently push you to give them what they want.”
The demands could range from wanting to go to the toilet — which the nurses understand — to wanting a cup of Milo immediately.
Or an able-bodied relative may press the call bell to ask a nurse to pour a cup of water for the patient, when everything is at the bedside, said Lee.
Patients’ relatives may also threaten to complain to the ministry or hospital chief executive if they do not get what they want.
During the pandemic when visitors were not allowed, a woman insisted on visiting her mother — whose condition was stable — and complained to the authorities. She got her way, only to make the same demand a few weeks later, Audrey recalled.
What about the other (people) who also want these things but, because they’re too nice, we can’t bend the rules for them? So it’s pretty unfair.”
PAINFUL BUT FULFILLING
There is another dark and “demoralising” side of patients’ families that nurses have seen: An increase in elderly patients warded over the festive season. They tend to be picked up by relatives after the festival is over, said Lee.
“The accident and emergency doctor can’t really reject the patients if they insist on being hospitalised (for checks),” he added.
While he understands there is caregiver stress, he can tell that the patients know the reason they are in hospital.
Nurses would strike up a conversation with them, and the hospital may serve up little treats like a festive cake or jelly, he said. “It makes it a bit better to know, no matter what, (we’re) here for these people.”
A big reason why he left nursing was an injury he sustained when rushing forward to catch a falling patient.
He had told the patient, who was in quarantine and had borderline oxygen levels, to either use a urinal or seek assistance to go to the toilet.
He was in the room when the patient began making his own way to the toilet instead. The patient suddenly slumped and began falling backwards. Lee, who was walking towards him, caught him in time.
“But it was a very sudden movement, so I sprained my neck, back and ankle,” said Lee.
The ankle, which was previously injured, required surgery, and Lee had to take hospitalisation leave. He could not bear heavy loads and could not continue clinical work. After weighing his options, he quit.
He bears the patient no grudge — “I was glad to see he was safe” — and does not regret taking up nursing as a mid-career switch from the financial sector.
“Very painful, but it’s a very fulfilling part (of my life). It makes me who I am now, which I guess is adaptable and patient. Pretty much nothing can stress me out right now,” he said.
“It’s just that I’m unable to continue for a long time (because) I don’t want to sacrifice everything of me to care for someone else.”
For Audrey, meanwhile, the perks of the job that keep her going include teamwork and the chance to care for critically ill patients.
“I like being there for people when they’re at their lowest … to listen, talk to them, joke with them, help make their day,” she said. “I don’t think you can find that kind of satisfaction in almost any other job.”
Tune in to Heavy Duty for Bryan Loo’s uplifting experience in another frontline job, as well as other encounters and prejudices nurses face at work.