Media coverage has pointed to increased numbers of domestic abuse incidents during the past 18 months of the pandemic. But has this translated into increased action in support of those affected, asks Lisa Davis?
Earlier this year, Changing Relations collaborated with Dr Stephen Burrell, deputy director of Durham University’s Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse, on a piece of research exploring how businesses in the north east of England were addressing gender equality issues and whether this had been affected by the Covid-19 crisis.
While the vast majority of respondents felt that their organisations had a workplace culture that encouraged gender equality, when it came to domestic abuse, the responses were troubling: 45% of respondents were unsure whether their business did a good job of addressing domestic abuse, with 19% disagreeing – or even strongly disagreeing – that their company did a good job.
Furthermore, although we know that the pandemic intensified victims’ experiences of domestic abuse, a further 41% of survey respondents were unsure whether their organisation had taken more steps to address domestic abuse since the pandemic, with 33% disagreeing and 9% strongly disagreeing.
One respondent said domestic abuse had “never been discussed, mentioned, nor is it in a policy” nor “in any company awareness campaign.”
Domestic abuse and HR
Another told us, “I’m not sure any of the team would know what to look out for and what to do if they suspected it”.
How employers can help
The work of the domestic abuse sector in recent years has encouraged businesses to recognise that domestic abuse is not the private matter of yesteryear, but is, in fact, everyone’s business. And there are a range of ways in which an employer can be proactive about this issue. But our survey indicated that this was not happening at the majority of businesses we spoke to.
Some respondents described efforts such as the mental health advocates and forums that their workplaces had set up. These are fantastic steps towards proactively addressing staff wellbeing.
But we need to be careful not to assume that addressing mental health automatically means we’ve supported our colleagues with the impacts of domestic abuse. There is definitely an overlap, with 30-60% of women with a mental health problem having experienced domestic violence; however, domestic abuse is very much an issue with its own specific parameters. For example, up to 75% of employed partner violence victims experience “interference tactics” whereby a perpetrator exerts control over their employment or job opportunities.
One respondent pinpointed a key paradox that could be keeping businesses from taking action on this critical issue, “We are unaware of any abuse but the opportunity of support has not been shared for an impacted staff member to have the opportunity to reach out.”
This chimes with the findings of the 2017 Vodafone Foundation report, Domestic Violence and Abuse: Working together to transform responses in the workplace, that, on average, there were only 0.5 disclosures per organisation in the preceding 12 months.
Businesses are not talking sufficiently about domestic abuse. And therefore survivors are not reaching out.
In our participatory arts practice in the last eight years, we have spoken to survivors who have cast valuable light on this double bind. They have highlighted that: “Everyone apparently knew. My friends were saying, ‘Oh yeah we saw the signs but we didn’t want to say anything.’”
“I wanted help for a lot longer before I actually called anyone.”
“Nobody ever asked me. They look at me and think my life’s perfect. We’re very good at hiding things. We put up and shut up. It becomes your norm. When it’s happening to you in isolation, you feel powerless. You try and tell people but nobody’s listening.”
Nobody ever asked me. They look at me and think my life’s perfect. We’re very good at hiding things.” – domestic abuse survivor
What can we learn from these survivor perspectives? Could it be that bystanders are still likely to turn a blind eye, whether through lack of awareness or discomfort with a difficult topic? Could it be that the effects of abuse on someone’s self-esteem might mean it takes a lot for them to build up the confidence to ask for help therefore the onus is on friends and colleagues to reach out? Could it be that we are stuck with unhelpful misperceptions about who can be affected that stop us considering it might be happening to someone within our workplace?
Our experience is that if you open a space to discuss domestic abuse, people begin to feel more comfortable talking about it. This was borne out when, after delivering our training to staff at Believe Housing in 2018, a member of staff came forward to hand in her notice, making a disclosure of domestic abuse as she did so.
Having done so much work to develop their understanding of domestic abuse, Believe was resolutely determined to do everything it could to support the staff member, concerned she would be in greater risk if she left her job, losing both financial security and perhaps the one safe place she had to come to. They helped find their employee a home and the support she needed to remain in her job and received a card saying: “I can never tell you the positive impact you have had on my life.”
So what does this mean for your workplace? We would love to see businesses actively embracing this issue, for example by: running awareness-raising campaigns, developing policies, extending their mental health ambassador programmes to include domestic abuse champions, or incorporating specific training into their learning and development.
Changing Relations has a number of years of experience delivering this kind of education and training in a range of settings, including businesses. We know it can make a real difference to people’s lives, and to the culture of an organisation, if businesses are ready to learn and embrace the role they have to play in tackling domestic abuse.