Nurses were the most assaulted group of workers in HSE hospitals last year, accounting for three in five of all recorded incidents.
Figures outlined at the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) annual conference show that nurses have been the most widely assaulted group in hospitals for the past 10 years.
Last year's figures show a total of 948 assaults across all hospital staff - with 584 relating to nurses (61%).
INMO general secretary, Phil Ní Sheaghdha, said there is "a huge degree of under-reporting in all assaults".
She said while there is a scheme for nurses who suffer physical assault, whereby being absent from work, as a result, does not affect sick leave, there is no such comfort for victims of psychological assault. The INMO has negotiated this scheme with the HSE and is now focused on getting it extended to other forms of assault, Ms Ní Sheaghdha said.
She said she has represented a nurse who suffered "a pretty bad assault at work".
"She was off work for nearly three months. She didn't have a physical injury but psychologically couldn't go back to work, so there's no provision for the psychological part of that injury to be catered for under that scheme.
"We are seeking to change that because, obviously, your psychological injuries are as important as your physical injuries. It's a work in progress but it's very slow," Ms Ni Sheaghdha said.
She said for some nurses, an assault has been "career-ending".
"That's just not acceptable. They then retire on the grounds of ill health," she said.
A motion calling on the HSE to provide greater support for nurses and greater planning to prevent violence and aggression in older people's services was passed at the conference.
Mayo nurses, Rita O'Malley of Belmullet and Noreen Quinn of Ballina, said they were subjected to a variety of assaults including hitting, kicking, sexual, physical and emotional.
While the elderly resident was not to blame on account of having dementia, nurses were left feeling they were the guilty party. 'What did you do to cause the incident?' is often the line of questioning adopted by management.
"Where is the appropriate de-briefing, where is the appropriate stress-relief course?" Ms Quinn asked. Both Ms O'Malley and Ms Quinn have undertaken stress-relief courses which they paid for themselves.
The nurses said there is a serious need for the HSE to protect the well-being of nurses in these frightening situations.
“Young staff, in particular, can be traumatised,” Ms Quinn said.
Ms O’Malley said there is a need for more dementia-specific units, where residents can be placed on a short-term basis to help with managing challenging behaviour.
Health Minister Simon Harris will attend the final day of the conference in County Meath tomorrow.