Domestic Abuse – Why it’s a workplace issue

We have almost completed a year of remote working and in the main, the transition has been incredible. The speed at which workplaces have had to transform to accommodate changing working requirements has been astounding. But these changes have also come with a dark side and one which Employers cannot ignore.

The lockdown measures which were introduced to manage the Coronavirus have drastically altered people’s day-to-day lives. Where the workplace was once a safe refuge for some employees who are now working from home, it has trapped them with abusive partners with no escape.

A matter of global and national concern

The United Nations has described the worldwide increase in domestic abuse as a “shadow pandemic” alongside Covid-19.  It is thought cases have increased by 20% since the March 2020 lockdown.  In 2018, Public Health England, published data that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men, suffer from domestic abuse in their lifetime and that domestic abuse costs businesses £1,9 billion annually due to decreased productivity, time off work, lost wages and sick pay.

A plea for organisations to do more.

In recognition of these circumstances, the Business Minister, Paul Scully wrote an open letter to employers in January 2021, urging them to provide support to employees experiencing domestic abuse. The letter outlines practical steps employers can take to increase awareness of domestic abuse, noticing the warning signs and providing workers access to the support they need.

For many managers, the necessity to oversee a team remotely has been one of the biggest adjustments of the lockdown period.  Even the most experienced managers are likely to have encountered challenges as the lockdown has worn on, particularly around monitoring productivity, managing performance and pastoral duties.

But despite the health and safety and legal requirements, it can be incredibly difficult for managers to start a conversation about domestic abuse.  Understandably, managers can be afraid of saying the wrong thing, whether that be from a legal perspective or fear of making the situation worse. Added to that, is the fact that not everyone wants to talk about their personal issues with their boss.

There is also a belief amongst some employers, that ‘this won’t happen here’ and that there isn’t a need to formalise policies and processes to help employees who may be victims of domestic violence or abuse.  Such beliefs and taboos are unhelpful and provide organisations with an excuse not to address the issue.  Sadly, domestic abuse has no boundaries and it does not stay at home.

Once employers understand that domestic violence and abuse follows a victim into the workplace and impacts on productivity, morale, wellbeing and workplace relationships, the next concern they usually have is how they equip their managers and employees to address the issue.

 How can organisations help?

1. Raise awareness and have a proactive approach.

Like any organisational initiative, policy or process, effective employee buy-in is essential and to stand any chance of success, policies and processes must be integrated into the company culture and business practices.  It’s important that this is not seen an ‘HR issue’ but rather supported by senior leaders and an issue impacting everyone in the organisation. By recognising that domestic violence and abuse exist, organisations can help break the silence and ensure that employees understand that it’s a workplace issue affecting everyone, that they can speak up if they need support and that line managers are confident to recognise when help may be needed.

2. Introduce policies or practices that help.

Research conducted by the Vodaphone Foundation (2018) found that whilst 86% of organisations believed they had a duty of care towards victims of domestic violence and abuse, only 5% had introduced a specific policy or guidelines on the issue.

The starting point is to ensure that all managers and employees know that a domestic violence and abuse at work policy exists.  The policy must be well communicated and must highlight the role everyone can play in providing a supportive and empathetic environment when an employee discloses a domestic violence or abuse issue.

The policy should also dovetail into other company policies and processes such as health and safety at work, equality and diversity and wellbeing policies, because it seeks to benefit the welfare of individuals and retains valued employees.

Most importantly, the policy must signpost employees to confidential services and information where they can obtain support from specialist domestic violence and abuse organisations, counselling services or an Employee Assistance Helpline.

3. Train Line Managers.

Training line managers and supervisors to recognise and respond to the signs of domestic violence and abuse is an important aspect when implementing a domestic violence and abuse policy.  Whilst employees may not always self-disclose the problem, managers should understand how to appropriately address changes in behaviour that may be affecting performance at work.

It’s important for managers to understand that they are not expected to be experts or try to solve the problem, but rather provide a safe and confidential space for employees to raise issues and be able to signpost them to appropriate help and support.

The training should also provide line managers with an overview of what the organisation can and cannot do to support victims. Aspects that line managers have control over and can help with may be adjusting working times/hours and offering paid leave so that victims can access the support they need and make adjustments at home in their personal lives to support themselves and their family.

4. Provide information and support.

Employees play an important role in supporting colleagues who are victims of domestic violence and abuse, because they are often the first to suspect or hear about the issues as a trusted colleague.

By ensuring information is easily accessible to employees, organisations can ensure that everyone feels equipped to help.  Publishing information on company intranet sites, via team briefs and bulletins, communicating the policy and signposting employees to Employee Assistance Helplines and other sources of help, are all helpful in raising awareness.

Domestic violence and abuse are a complex and often multi-layered issue that involves aspects such as control, coercion, threatening behaviour and abuse.  It takes many different forms from sexual abuse, financial abuse, stalking, cyber harassment, emotional and psychological control.  It does not discriminate, it affects everyone and impacts individual and organisational effectiveness.

Further information and support:

UNISON – Domestic violence and abuse: A trade union issue. A UNISON guide, December 2015. Available at: https://www.unison.org.uk/content/uploads/2017/02/24192.pdf

Refuge & Respect – Domestic violence resource manual for employers’ 2nd edition. http://www.safeineastsussex.org.uk/content/files/file/Respect_Refuge_DV_Manual_A4_76pp.pdf

Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development – Managing and supporting employees experiencing domestic abuse. https://www.cipd.co.uk/Images/managing-and-supporting-employeesexperiencing-domestic-abuse_2013_tcm18-10528.pdf

The Vodafone Foundation – vodafone-foundation-toolkit-on-domestic-violence-at-work-recognise-respond-refer.pdf (squarespace.com)