Managing and supporting employees experiencing domestic abuse

Home Managing and supporting employees experiencing domestic abuse
15 Mar 2021
For HR professionals

With soaring rates of calls to specialist helplines throughout the pandemic, domestic abuse is fast becoming a major issue for HR. 

The Office for National Statistics revealed that a fifth of crimes reported during the first lockdown in England and Wales involved domestic abuse. One in four women and one in six men will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime. This suggests that it is more likely than not that someone in your business is suffering domestic abuse or knows somebody who is. 

Domestic abuse can take many forms, not just physical; it can also be financial, emotional and psychological. And it has a huge impact at work. Home Office figures show that 75% of people who endure domestic abuse will be targeted in the workplace; around 58% of abused women will miss at least three days of work a month, and 2% will lose their jobs as a direct result. Apart from the strong ethical argument for employers to educate and empower employees, there is also a compelling business case in terms of productivity loss. Home Office figures suggest that domestic abuse costs the UK economy around £1.9 billion a year. It's not just about job losses and absenteeism, but also presenteeism. 

Being a good employer includes supporting staff through new or difficult periods in their lives. Violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence can all have a devastating impact on individuals and their families. The workplace can often be one of the few places that a person experiencing abuse can be separate from their abuser, and therefore can be somewhere people are able to ask for and access support. But regrettably less than 30% of employers know how to respond. Encouragingly, more organisations are recognising their vital role in responding to the problem by developing specific domestic abuse policies and effective support frameworks. 

But it's not just the people being targeted by domestic abuse that are an employer's concern. It is commonplace for perpetrators to use their workplace resources, such as phones and email, to threaten, harass or abuse their current or former partner. Colleagues may also be affected. They may be followed from work, or subject to questioning about the target's contact details or locations. They may have to cover for other workers while they are off, try to fend off the abuse and fear for their own safety. Furthermore, colleagues may be aware of the abuse and violence but not know how to help.

Employers have a responsibility to provide all staff with a safe and effective work environment. Having a violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence workplace policy can clearly demonstrate that it is not tolerated within or outside the workplace. It will show a commitment to provide support for staff and take action against perpetrators. Crucially, employees need to be aware of the existence of any policies or protocols, and how to access support if they need it. Women's Aid suggest that employer support ought to be made up of four steps: recognise the problem, respond appropriately to disclosure, provide support and refer to the appropriate help.

There are several examples of practical support you can offer people being targeted in the workplace, including:

  • Allowing individuals to change work patterns or offering more flexible working hours
  • Diverting phone calls and emails 
  • Where possible, offering changes to specific duties that would put that person in a vulnerable position (such as answering the phone or covering reception)
  • Moving the employee out of public view (away from reception or entry points and ground floor windows)
  • Ensuring that the employee does not work alone or in an isolated area
  • Agreeing with the individual when and how to tell colleagues
  • Advising colleagues on how they should respond if the perpetrator telephones or visits the workplace
  • Alerting reception or security staff if the perpetrator is known to come to the workplace
  • Checking that staff have arrangements for getting safely to and from home
  • Ensuring your records on staff addresses, next of kin and emergency contact information are regularly updated
  • Keeping a record of any incidents of abuse in the workplace, including persistent calls, emails or visits

Domestic abuse is a complex and sensitive issue where people’s safety and wellbeing can be at significant risk. Employers should remain mindful of this and take specialist advice when necessary. Our Charity of the Year is Your Sanctuary in Woking, who support and empower local survivors of domestic abuse. They would be willing and able to guide you in creating or reviewing your policies and frameworks, or in supporting you in responding appropriately to any specific incidents.

An organisation's goal is to increase understanding of the issue among employees, listen without judgement, make the workplace supportive and safe, and collaborate with employees and other businesses to identify new ideas that may help those affected. Of course, employers can't solve the problem alone, but they undoubtedly have a pivotal role to play.

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