Creating safe spaces in the workplace for victims of domestic violence

Bruised lip

By signing the Government’s new pledge to help those affected, OH has the power to help fight domestic violence in the workplace.

When the Department of Health recently launched a new public health responsibility deal pledge for employers to sign up to in order to show their commitment to supporting any staff affected by domestic violence, it was a proud moment. Not least because having helped numerous well-known organisations to support staff affected by domestic violence, Dame Carol Black – who led the working groups to create the pledge – invited us to help her understand the effect of domestic violence on the workplace and determine the final wording for the pledge.

Initially developed with the help of charities – including the Corporate Alliance Against Domestic Violence (CAADV), the Co-ordinated Action Against Domestic Abuse (CAADA) and the Eliminate Domestic Violence Global Foundation (EDVGF) – it was interesting to see the initial focus of the pledge on the effect of domestic violence “in” the workplace.

Domestic violence can and does follow victims into work, with more than 75% of those who endure domestic violence subjected to abusive phone calls, texts, emails and even visits while they’re at work (CAADV and EDVGF, 2013).

But for me, apart from the humanitarian aspect, the most compelling reason for businesses to commit to helping people affected by domestic violence is its impact on the workplace. Not only will more than half of victims call in sick at least three times a month, but the problem is estimated to cost UK businesses £1.9 billion a year in lost wages, productivity and absence (CAADV, 2013).

Even so, most employers assume this incredibly prevalent, although hidden, issue does not affect them. The sad reality is that one woman in four and one man in six will experience domestic violence during their adult lives.

That means an organisation employing 1,000 people will have at least 200 employees affected by domestic violence at some point in their lives, with perhaps a few dozen suffering domestic violence at any one time.

This is something that Wragge & Co, a commercial law firm we’ve supported with a domestic violence initiative, discovered.

Wragge & Co initiative

Lorna Gavin, head of corporate responsibility at Wragge, said: “We used to view domestic violence as a community issue, something that affected individuals at the refuges we were supporting as part of our work to help reduce homelessness. It was only after we realised just how widespread the problem was that we recognised the extent to which it could be affecting our own workforce.”

Realising that they couldn’t fix things at home, but that they could get a proper policy and appropriate support in place, the firm set about training HR and key managers to spot the tell-tale signs of domestic abuse, including absence, performance and behavioural issues, and put up a series of striking images in every toilet cubicle with short stories about how both men and women had been helped by sharing their problem with their employer. As a result, victims have started to come forward and have been given time during the working day to undertake safety planning with the police, something they simply couldn’t do outside of work.

Most important of all, Wragge & Co is one of a growing number of employers – including British Airways and HMRC – prepared to recognise that domestic violence can and does affect the workplace.

Powerful role

We, as OH professionals, have the power to create a safe environment for victims to come forward and get help.

As well as educating key staff on how to spot the signs that someone is suffering from domestic violence, it is equally crucial that we do not inadvertently endanger victims by telling them to “just leave”, when to do so without first putting an appropriate safety plan in place could endanger their life – two women are killed every week in the UK by a current or former partner (Home Office, 1999).

The guidelines for employers and employees created in association with the pledge stress the importance of directing victims towards specialist advice from advisers who can assess the victim’s risk and offer confidential advice.

As one such adviser, the complexity of each individual case never ceases to amaze me.

Aside from the emotional ties that often remain between a victim and their partner or the financial constraints limiting their ability to leave and start a new home, things can get incredibly complicated and legal advice is often required when children are involved.

In addition to signing the pledge, OH professionals who want to help end domestic violence – and the associated absence and health problems – must also be prepared to direct victims towards specialist support. This could be their GP, one of the free domestic violence helplines or an employee assistance programme, which can provide access to the expert emotional, practical, financial and legal support needed to help the victim move forward, from as little as a few pounds per employee per year.

The Department of Health has published guidelines for employers concerned about domestic violence.


Public Health Responsibility Deal (2013).

Corporate Alliance Against Domestic Violence (2013).

Public Health Responsibility Deal (2013).

Council of Europe (2002).

Home Office (1999). Homicide statistics.

Anne Payne

About Anne Payne

Anne Payne is co-founder of Validium, a provider of employee support services.
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