While often seen as a “women’s issue”, domestic violence has a huge impact on businesses and their staff. Sarah Silcox looks at what companies can do to help employees who are trapped in a cycle of abuse.
One-fifth of employed women take time off work because of domestic violence and 2% lose their jobs as a direct result of abuse. The Equality and Human Rights Commission estimates that 56% of those enduring abuse are frequently late for work and 54% miss at least three days a year due to abuse.
The direct cost of domestic abuse to UK business is around £1.9 billion per year, excluding lost productivity and performance. The human and emotional costs to individuals affected by the issue are huge, and growing numbers of employers are waking up to the fact that domestic violence is a health and wellbeing issue.
Businesses often believe that domestic violence is a private issue, but research found that one-third of all incidents are happening in the workplace.”
Melissa Morbeck, CAADV
All organisations have a legal responsibility to protect the health, safety and welfare of their staff, but the obligation in the case of domestic violence is wider: by raising awareness of the issue and supporting those enduring abuse, employers are helping to prevent it in the wider community. Domestic violence has clear implications for the bottom line, affecting attendance and presenteeism, staff turnover and mental wellbeing at work. It also affects workplace teams, who may be caught up in a member’s distress or in supporting them to move on.
Domestic abuse and employment
“Businesses often believe that domestic violence is a private issue, yet research by Sylvia Walby in 2010 found that one-third of all incidents are happening in the workplace – in parking lots, grounds and offices,” says Melissa Morbeck, executive director of the Corporate Alliance Against Domestic Violence (CAADV).
She says that this represents a huge risk for employers, not just in terms of the personal harm to employees but the affect it has on the financial sustainability of the business. For example, a bank that CAADV works with calculated that if 10% of the estimated number of its employees enduring domestic violence miss five days of work a year, the direct costs of this to the organisation are more than £1 million, excluding presenteeism and other indirect costs.
“Employers need to remember that those dealing with domestic violence often want to stay in work because they see the workplace as a safe place, and by taking simple proactive steps the organisation can help them to disclose what is happening in their homes,” Morbeck says.
Research by CAADV suggests that 80% of employers want to respond to the issue, and that increasing numbers are incorporating policies regarding domestic violence into their health and wellbeing agendas.
But how can HR and OH professionals take appropriate action to support employees who may be suffering from abuse?
“Sometimes HR and others mistakenly believe they can save someone’s life,” Morbeck says. “They need to remember that they’re not in the business of counselling – but they can signpost people to appropriate services that can help.”
The role of HR in particular should be to empower employees on the best course of action in their particular circumstances. A female employee of a City law firm worked with CAADV to set up a domestic violence programme in her firm after she recognised that she had been enduring emotional abuse for some time, but had not seen herself as a victim. Empowered by being involved in the issue at her workplace, she was able to plan to leave an abusive partner in a way that ensured her own safety and that of her children, Morbeck says.
Policy and practice
A domestic violence policy, either a stand-alone document or a statement within a broader harassment/violence policy, is important (see box one).
However, Morbeck argues that the employer’s approach needs to extend beyond just a policy and be linked to other aspects of health and wellbeing at work – for example, a Department of Health (DH) initiative (see box two) is part of the joint Mind/Rethink “Time to change” programme on mental health in the workplace.
It can be helpful to dovetail domestic violence policies with those on other aspects of violence or harassment at work and to cross-refer to disciplinary procedures and codes of conduct to cover cases where an employee may be a perpetrator.
Training for key post-holders is crucial, and should cover how to recognise signs of domestic violence and how to appropriately address changes in behaviour from a performance-management point of view.
Those trained need to know how to signpost to other services, either internal to the organisation – for example, HR or OH – or external, such as national support agency Women’s Aid or the organisation’s employee assistance programme (EAP).
It can be helpful to dovetail domestic violence policies with those on other aspects of violence or harassment at work at to cross-refer to disciplinary procedures and codes of conduct to cover cases where an employee may be a perpetrator.”
The key point about training is to provide managers with a set of tools to help them support an employee if necessary. The DH, for example, trained key front-line staff – including HR, IT, security officers, reception staff and office managers.
Morbeck says that employers “need to work with OH on domestic violence, as this is actually an OH issue”.
Organisations should review their EAP programme and the counselling support it offers; the typical six sessions of counselling delivered over a period of six weeks by some packages of support may not be sufficient and it might be more effective to spread them over 12 weeks.
Counselling in domestic violence cases tends to focus on empowering individuals to understand the dynamics of the abusive relationship and how to regain control over safety and life choices.
Diana Wellens, writing in the summer issue of “Counselling at Work”, says that it also needs to cover safety – particularly important at the point when an employee is about to leave an abusive partner, or during pregnancy or in the early weeks and months after giving birth, as these times are often associated with an escalation in violence.
Education and awareness
Employee education and awareness activities should stress that the workplace is a safe and secure place to reach out for help.
Materials can cover how to keep everyone safe in the workplace and the need for all staff to avoid unintentionally giving abusers access to those suffering abuse – for example, by providing email addresses or mobile numbers, or turning away from acts of abuse in the workplace.
Many large organisations, including the DH, have trained domestic violence “champions” to get the message across.
“Some people are still wary of approaching HR about domestic violence and prefer to go to someone else,” Morbeck says.
She adds that fear of disclosing domestic violence can be a barrier to an effective employer approach: “There is an element of shame for employees, particularly if the organisation’s culture does not lend itself to an open discussion of these issues.”
Line manager attitudes can also reduce the likelihood that employees disclose the situation, Morbeck says: “Managers are not usually ignorant with a capital ‘I’, but they are wary of acting because they are worried that they will do the wrong thing or possibly tip an employee over the edge. This is where good training is vital.”
What if line managers do not see handling a domestic violence case as part of their role?
Morbeck takes an uncompromising line in this scenario: “If a team member is not at work or not performing at work because of domestic abuse, it is the line manager’s job to manage the issue. Line managers are only a blockage if the upper management lets them get away with it.”
Safety and security
What about a situation where both parties work for the same employer on the same site? It may be necessary to relocate one or both employees, but the person enduring the abuse should not be penalised. Career breaks may be a good option for women who need to move away but do not want to give up work, or a temporary period of flexible working might be helpful.
Workplace safety needs reviewing as part of a domestic violence plan to ensure that the work site is not inadvertently supporting abusers. It may be appropriate to introduce caller ID on particular phones, for example, or to remove employees’ names from directories or change their working patterns and schedules to minimise risk.
The police are an important part in an employer’s response to domestic violence, but their involvement does have to be agreed with the employee concerned, unless there are real safety issues – for example, when children need safeguarding, weapons are involved or the perpetrator has turned up at the workplace. Security staff should be trained to react to a protocol in the event that an employee self-discloses – for example, they might be shown photographs of perpetrators so that they can stop them entering a building.
“Individual police officers are often amazingly sensitive to domestic violence, acting as ‘champions’ of the employer’s approach,” Morbeck says. “There is always a balance to be struck between protecting an employee’s confidentiality and workforce safety, and HR needs to have a conversation with the individual that makes it clear that they are best placed to judge the situation, but that if the workplace is at risk, the employer is duty bound to act.”
Walby S (2009). “The cost of domestic violence: update 2009”. Lancaster University.
Wellens D (2012). “Domestic abuse – how can we help?” Counselling at Work, Summer issue, pp.12-17.
Women’s Aid has produced a model workplace policy on domestic violence:
The Department of Health (DH) is creating a peer network of “champions” against domestic violence as part of its ongoing emotional wellbeing programme. The job of the volunteer champions is to raise the profile of the issue and to provide individuals in the organisation with an alternative contact point should they need to have a conversation about domestic violence.
“We know that it is often the peers of those affected who are approached first,” says Julie Fidler, programme lead for health and wellbeing.
The DH started to raise the profile of domestic violence in November 2011 and since then has put information on its intranet, showcasing its links with external resources such as CAADV and the charity Mind.
“It’s all about bringing domestic violence out into the open as part of our work on emotional resilience,” Fidler adds.
The DH has also run a number of targeted training sessions for key post-holders. For IT, this involved how to put traces and blocks on phones, and for facilities personnel the training involved how the use of photographs could help identify potential perpetrators. This led to a group of 12 employees offering to become domestic violence champions.
The champions are currently undertaking a training programme involving a four-hour session of training every month for six months.
“After the first module of training, it emerged through self-disclosure that all members of the group had been affected in some way by domestic violence,” Fiddler says. “The champions are already supporting each other and are keen to take this energy out into the wider organisation to help cut the stigma associated with abuse.”
The DH intranet – together with posters in private areas – promote the champions as points of contact, but also stress that individuals are free to contact Fidler, their line manager, HR or OH for support.
It is still early days for the domestic violence programme, which will be launched in the next couple of months as part of a broader emotional wellbeing initiative, but the mental health initiatives already running are having an impact.
One employee with a mental health condition is now blogging about his experiences, with the blog receiving between 500 and 600 “hits” a month, and a group of 40 employees who have self-disclosed mental health issues are also producing a video about their lives for the DH intranet.