Why domestic abuse is a workplace safety issue

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Employers can play a vital role in supporting victims of domestic abuse, through steps like creating a culture where employees feel comfortable asking for help.

The Covid-19 pandemic rocked business and industry around the world, meaning employers faced unprecedented challenges to adapt. Entire sectors of the economy locked down and workforces moved from office to home. These changes have had considerable impact, even now as we emerge from the worst of the virus. 

During the height of lockdown calls to domestic abuse support services rose exponentially. The shift to home working meant that those experiencing abuse were trapped with their perpetrators. The option of going to work was removed, meaning no reprieve from abuse at home. 

But the malign effects of the virus on the rates of domestic abuse have had one constructive consequence, it is that there is far greater public awareness of: the scale of domestic abuse in the UK; the signs to look out for; the fact that domestic abuse takes many forms; and the role of employers in tackling it.

The many forms of abuse

For employers to effectively play their part, it is vital to understand the many forms that domestic abuse takes, and to educate staff accordingly. Only by truly understanding it, can we spot signs and symptoms, and know when to offer help.

Domestic abuse is far from just bruises and does not always manifest itself physically at all. Domestic abuse can be physical, but it is also psychological – from coercive control, to isolating people from sources of independence. It can be destructively subtle, to both the person experiencing it and their family, friends and colleagues.

It can be financial control, not letting a person access their own money, and therefore their freedom. And it can affect anyone – men, women, all races and religions, and people from every socio-economic status.

It is also vital that employers understand domestic abuse is rarely a one-off event and often continues for prolonged periods, sometimes many years. The trauma from the abuse can then last a lifetime. It wrecks lives and too often it takes them. Two women are killed each week by a current or former partner.

Lucy Horitz, CEO of the Employers’ Initiative on Domestic AbuseLucy Horitz, CEO of the Employers’ Initiative on Domestic Abuse

Employers taking action 

Tackling domestic abuse isn’t just the right thing to do, it is an economic challenge too. The most recent Home Office figures show that £1.3 billion was spent on dealing with domestic abuse in England and Wales in one year. This represents more than 10 per cent of the policing budget.

The same research showed that lost economic output and reduced productivity resulting from domestic abuse cost the country £14 billion. This is in addition to the nearly £50 billion the Home Office estimated was the cost of physical and emotional harm. There is a financial argument to be made for tackling domestic abuse through the workplace, by reducing time off work, shoring productivity and avoiding sick pay.

This is being increasingly recognised, and inspiring action

During the first year of Covid our membership expanded by 30 per cent more than the previous year. It’s heartening that business is opening its eyes to what can be done by employers to tackle domestic abuse. We saw amazing innovation from many members of the Employers’ Initiative on Domestic Abuse (EIDA), as they recognised that the needs of their staff had changed now they were working from home, so they got creative and made changes.

Lloyds Banking Group informed staff that if they needed to leave home, they would arrange hotel accommodation and help them move. Boots, Morrisons and other pharmacies are providing safe spaces in their shops for customers facing domestic abuse to access support. This is just a small selection of examples of the transformational action being taken by EIDA’s employer members.

We also saw a surge in members seeking out posters, information about frontline services and training provision for their HR team and management.

All our business

During the pandemic, the government took steps to provide extra support for those experiencing domestic abuse, with the launch of their #YouAreNotAlone campaign, signposting support for victims in venues such as supermarkets. Several big brand employers got behind the campaign to advertise safe spaces and the Ask for ANI codeword scheme, where those needing help could ask discreetly for help in several retail outlets.

The power of the government acting in tandem with business to educate, raise awareness and provide support is invaluable.

In January 2021, business minister Paul Scully wrote an open letter to employers outlining the role they can play and urging them to act. The letter was in response to a review of support being offered by businesses, which found there is a need to raise employer awareness and the ability to spot the signs of abuse; that there is some way to go in encouraging employers to implement a formal domestic abuse policy; and that employee access to flexible working and time out of work needs to be available for those leaving an abusive home.

The government committed to keep working with business to improve these outcomes, including to consult on employment rights regarding domestic abuse.

Three ways to act now

There are three simple steps that employers can take to step up, support their staff and play their part in society’s response to domestic abuse.

  • First, it’s about raising awareness and addressing preconceptions and myths among workforces. There are various training options for HR teams and management, available through frontline services and charities in the sector. Educating your senior teams will result in a confidence among the workforce that should they wish to make a disclosure, they are doing so to someone who understands and can offer adequate support.
  • Second, implementing a domestic abuse policy. There are free templates available as well as advice on how to ingrain it in your workplace culture. Having clarity for employees about the way that their disclosure or report will be handled, as well as clearly defined next steps in terms of support available, is invaluable and will also inspire confidence from those suffering.
  • Third, employers should also ensure that they signpost employees to appropriate services. This could include the Bright Sky mobile app, which is free to download and provides support and information to anyone who may be experiencing abuse or is concerned about someone they know. Many of our employer members mandate that the app is downloaded on work phones.

When employers demonstrate they are aware of domestic abuse and make staff aware of the support available, this can help to reduce the wall of silence that prevents many from seeking help.

Engagement from health and safety personnel, working in tandem with HR and management teams would go a long way to expanding the impact of business on stopping abuse once and for all.

EIDA is a free to join business network through which employers get access to a range of free practical advice and guidance. We host a regular events series to share best practice, encourage peer-to-peer learnings and to discuss emerging challenges for employers wishing to play their part in tackling domestic abuse.

For free guidance and to join EIDA, see: eida.org.uk

Lucy Horitz is CEO of the Employers’ Initiative on Domestic Abuse


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