Last reviewed 18 March 2019

Domestic abuse is a workplace health issue, not least because it costs businesses in the UK £1.9 billion each year, but also because some 75% of those enduring domestic abuse may end up being targeted by the abuser at work, in one manner or another. Vicky Powell takes a look at what employers can do about the issue in their organisations, how to access help to tackle the problem and the latest guidance available.

How widespread is domestic abuse?

Dr Justin Varney, the Government’s advisor on health and work at Public Health England, recently highlighted a number of shocking statistics in a guest blog post written for the UK’s Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM).

  • On average two women each week and one man each month are killed in England and Wales by a partner or ex-partner through domestic abuse.

  • Some 26% of women and 15% of men will experience domestic violence and abuse at some point in their working lifetime (from the ages of 16–59 years old).

  • Around 7.5% of women and 4.5% of men have experienced domestic violence in the last year. (It is important to remember that men can also be victims of domestic violence and stalking.)

  • Applying current estimates of experience of domestic violence in the last year to the working female population would suggest that approximately 1.14 million women in employment have experienced abuse in the last year.

Abuse: not just a domestic issue

It is a serious error to view domestic abuse as something entirely in the home domain and isolated from the workplace, and Dr Justin Varney has explained exactly why this is the case.

He points out that the workplace is often one of the few places that a person enduring violence can be separate from their abuser (although it does happen that both partners work for the same company and there have been some very tragic cases of domestic homicide in workplaces where this was the case).

However, Dr Varney notes research from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) which has found that 75% of women enduring domestic violence are targeted at work. This abuse can range from harassing phone calls to abusive partners arriving at the office unannounced, to physical assaults, for example.

Other research by the TUC has highlighted that of those who had experienced domestic violence over 40% were prevented from getting to work by the abuser, most commonly through physical violence or restraint (72%) followed by threats (68%).

Indeed, 13% reported the violence or abuse continuing in the workplace, and over 43% of these women reported a partner turning up at their workplace or stalking them while at work.

Similar international research has reinforced these findings and reiterated that domestic abuse and violence does directly impact individuals in the workplace.

Dr Varney says, “The impacts on a person enduring violence and abuse can be significant and are more than just physical injuries. The psychological impacts are profound and, although the vast majority of victims will be striving to keep up performance at work, there will be an impact. The estimated cost to businesses of this impact in the UK is circa £1.9 billion each year”.

This massive figure of £1.9 billion is down to factors such as decreased productivity, time off work, lost wages and sick pay, all of which significantly affect British workplaces.

What can employers do?

Domestic abuse is a hugely destructive problem and most would agree that society has a collective responsibility to respond to the issue, with employers also having an important role to play.

In this regard, the charity Business in the Community recently partnered with Public Health England, with sponsorship from the Insurance Charities, to produce new guidance to help every organisation tackle domestic abuse and so better support the mental and physical health and wellbeing of its employees.

The guidance points out that employers owe a duty of care to employees and have a legal responsibility to provide a safe and effective work environment. Preventing and tackling domestic abuse is an integral part of this and the new guide offers practical guidance and support around this difficult but crucial workplace issue.

Domestic abuse can be surprisingly difficult to spot in the workplace for a number of reasons as follows.

  • Abuse is not just about physical violence — it can also be emotional, sexual and economic for example. Therefore, while physical signs such as visible bruising might be an indication of abuse, they are by no means the only signs to look out for.

  • Disclosure can be low. In one survey of medium and large organisations, there was an average of less than one disclosure over the previous 12 months, which suggests not enough employees feel supported to raise the problem.

  • Domestic abuse takes place at all levels of society, regardless of gender, social class, race, religion, sexuality or disability.

Only 5% of organisations have a specific policy or guidelines on the issue and occupational health experts would like this to change.

Taking action: Acknowledge, Respond, Refer

The Lloyds Banking Group has developed a three-part system built around three key actions for employers to take as part of their approach on tackling domestic abuse and the approach is recommended and highlighted in the new guidance as follows.

Acknowledge

Use the new guidance to understand the issues around around domestic abuse, acknowledging the employer’s responsibility to address the problem. Enable colleagues to openly discuss this topic, and provide a supportive workplace.

Respond

Review organisational policies and processes to ensure you as an employer are providing a supportive workplace and can respond to disclosure. Make sure the policies and processes are implemented correctly.

Refer

Provide access to organisations which can help employees affected by the issue. For example, offer signposting to a resource such as the Bright Sky app which supports anyone in an abusive relationship or others who are concerned about someone. A full list of supportive organisations can be accessed in the Resources section of the Business in the Community guidance, including the Freephone 24 Hour National Domestic Violence Helpline (run in partnership between Women’s Aid and Refuge on Freephone: 0808 2000 247) and ManKind which provides advice and support for men experiencing domestic abuse.

A case study

Outcomes can be hugely positive when organisations are well prepared to support workers affected by domestic abuse.

One case study shared by Business in the Community highlights the situation of Julie, a receptionist at a large national accountancy firm. (Names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.)

Julie’s line manager began to suspect domestic abuse after noticing the receptionist always wore trousers or thick tights and long sleeve tops, even in the height of summer. Sometimes Julie would have bruises that she couldn’t hide, even using heavy make-up. She also seemed a bit remote, tense and lacking in concentration.

During a catch up meeting with her manager, during which her manager asked if everything was okay and mentioned some of her concerns, Julie broke down disclosed that her partner was often abusive to her.

Julie and her partner had a four-year-old son, Thomas, and she was concerned that she wouldn’t be able to cope with trying to organise childcare on her own if she left her partner. Julie said her partner doted on their son and had never abused her in front of him but she had very little family support and no friends.

Julie’s manager spent time with her and discussed how the organisation could support her. She gave her numbers that she could use for assistance, as well as providing information about local specialist domestic abuse services.

Julie hadn’t realised when she disclosed the abuse that she was pregnant. Subsequently, the abuse became worse and her partner’s physical attacks on her became more frequent. Julie decided to leave the relationship; she told her manager she believed her partner was capable of killing her and that she was afraid for her unborn child.

The support her employer provided included:

  • giving her a new job in a different office that was not on reception, so that she would not be on view if her ex-boyfriend came looking for her there

  • changing her shift patterns to help with childcare and also the way they paid her, so that the money would no longer go into their joint bank account

  • giving her time off to attend appointments

  • informing security and giving them a picture of Julie’s ex-partner.

With Julie’s permission, her employer let all the people that answered the phones know about her circumstances, and gave them a fixed procedure to follow should her ex-partner try to locate her. Julie’s ex-boyfriend did come looking for her but, due to the precautions the company had put in place, he thought she had left the company and was unable to track her down.

Julie had been in touch with her local Women’s Aid and, along with her employer, they helped her to arrange her childcare.

Julie says, “My employer did everything it could to help me and protect my identity if my ex-boyfriend ever came looking for me at work. I feel safer at work now that I know my ex-partner can’t easily find me. I am worried that he will come looking for me and my child, but I know my company will continue to support me if this situation arises”.

Conclusion

The financial cost of failing to intervene in cases of domestic abuse involving workers is high but the human costs are perhaps immeasurable, associated with physical and emotional harm, and even risks to workers’ actual lives.

Domestic abuse is a crime and should never be viewed as a “private matter”, off limits and not to be raised with staff. It is time to end the culture of silence around the problem by talking about the issue in organisations, and taking decisive action to end this destructive ill treatment of too many companies’ workers.

Legal information

There are various organisations that offer free, confidential support and practical guidance to victims of domestic abuse. These can easily be found online. However, in an emergency situation, where there is risk of immediate danger, the police/emergency services should be the first port of call.

England and Wales

Many forms of domestic abuse are regarded as criminal offences, such as assault, harassment, sexual abuse and threatening behaviour. A significant number of police forces have specialist Domestic Violence Units to provide advice, support and information to victims. The police have powers to intervene, investigate and arrest the abuser if they have grounds to do so. The police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) are then responsible for investigating the matter and charging the abuser if there is sufficient evidence and prospects of conviction.

Victims of domestic abuse can also apply to the civil courts for an injunction, a civil remedy to protect from abuse. An injunction is a type of court order requiring someone to do (or not to do) something. There are two main types of injunctions available for victims of domestic abuse under Part IV of the Family Law Act 1996.

  1. A non-molestation order prevents an abuser from using or threatening violence, intimidation and harassment towards a victim. When deciding to issue a non-molestation order, the courts will give consideration to all of the circumstances, including the need to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the victim and any children.

  2. An occupation order stipulates who can live in the family home, and can also restrict an abuser from entering within a certain area of the home. When deciding to issue an occupation order, the courts will consider the behaviour of the abuser, the housing and financial needs of both the victim and abuser and the likely impact the order, or not issuing an order, will have on the victim and any children involved.

The cost of an injunction application is free of charge. An applicant can apply themselves as a “litigant in person” or can instruct a solicitor to do so. There are usually costs associated if a barrister or solicitor is required to represent, though legal aid may be available for victims of domestic abuse who cannot afford to pay legal costs.

Scotland and Ireland

In Scotland, the Domestic Abuse Act 2018 came into force on 1 April 2019, making all domestic abuse towards a partner, psychological or physical, a criminal offence. As such, “coercive control”, which is a type of emotional and psychological abuse, causing a victim to feel threatened, humiliated, intimidated and controlled, is now a criminal offence under the Act. Similarly, the Act came into force in Ireland in May 2018, creating positive changes for victims of domestic violence in Ireland.

Northern Ireland

The changes in legislation do not currently extend to Northern Ireland and as such, “coercive control” is not currently a criminal offence. The Family Homes and Domestic Violence (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 does offer protection to victims, allowing them to apply for civil orders for protection.

Advice and support

For advice or support on a domestic abuse or wellbeing issue, contact Health Assured.