Last reviewed 20 April 2015

Domestic violence and abuse is a problem that affects a huge number of people in work. With the help of a new Public Health England toolkit, employers can do more to identify the signs and help those suffering in silence. Beverly Coleman reports.

In England and Wales, two women a week die as a result of domestic violence. The statistics paint a horrendous picture: 25% of women are affected by domestic violence during their adult lifetimes, 16% of men are affected by domestic violence during their lifetimes, 58% of abused women miss at least three days of work a month due to the effects of the abuse they suffer. A staggering 33% of all domestic violence homicides happened on workplace grounds and 5% of abused women arrive late for work at least five times.

Domestic abuse is very real and very serious. Sufferers do not simply escape it by closing the front door behind them and coming to work. Research shows that 75% of individuals experiencing this crime are targeted at work; they may even work with the perpetrator.

There is a greater need for more businesses to be aware of domestic violence and abuse, often regarded as a hidden workplace issue. With 70% of the adult population in employment and domestic violence and abuse costing the UK economy £1.9bn annually, organisations have a key role to play. With more training and increased awareness organisations can help change the culture around domestic violence and abuse and ensure that when they suspect something may be wrong or a member of staff reaches out for help, they are able to respond.

What is domestic abuse?

First, it is important to understand how domestic abuse is defined. The government’s definition is, “Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality”. Domestic abuse can be (but is not limited to) psychological, physical, sexual, financial and emotional abuse.

The individual

The effects on the individual living with abuse can include:

  • a decline in physical and mental health

  • loss of confidence

  • homelessness

  • substance and alcohol abuse.

Abuse can have an effect on relationships with friends, family and co-workers and have a detrimental effect on their children. Some of the effects on a business can include reduced performance, lateness and increased sickness absence.

Gudrun Burnet of Salus Specialist Training, who is a qualified IDVA (Independent Domestic Violence Advisor), has dedicated her career to supporting those suffering domestic abuse. She advises that, “People suffering domestic abuse may not feel able to talk to their manager at work as they are fearful of being judged or reprimanded instead of supported. Indeed, organisations do lose employees as a result of domestic abuse either through not being able to recognise the signs of abuse, or individuals being forced to leave employment by their perpetrator. The workplace, however, can actually be a place of safety”.

Legal responsibility

Employers have a duty of care to those they employ and under the Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1992 and are responsible for the health and safety of their employees, whether physical or emotional. An employer has a legal responsibility, should an employee be targeted at work, to protect both the employee enduring the abuse and their colleagues. Furthermore, under the Employment Rights Act 1996, organisations can be held liable if someone uses workplace equipment in the commission of a crime; for example, if an employee uses a company phone to stalk a former partner, the employer is culpable.

The Public Health England Toolkit

In November 2014, ahead of the “16 Days of Action” campaign against domestic violence, Public Health England (PHE) launched a toolkit which was developed by The Corporate Alliance — the nationally recognised membership charity that works with employers addressing the impact of domestic violence in the workplace.

The toolkit is a step-by-step guide for organisations about how they can tackle domestic abuse and raise awareness of the issue. It is specifically aimed at organisations that lack the occupational health or HR infrastructure to tackle an issue like domestic abuse in working environments, and provides practical tools and resources.

The toolkit is user-friendly, easy to navigate and extensive and that’s not to put the users off but to equip them with as much information as possible. Knowledge is key here where there are a range of abuse types and therefore an understanding of each is necessary. The briefings available on the toolkit are particularly useful, subjects include:

  • what to do when someone discloses,

  • who is affected by domestic abuse and

  • how do I get senior buy in and approval to bring this conversation to the workplace.

Alongside the briefings are podcasts, posters, the Women’s Aid short film “Cut: The Movie” featuring actress Keira Knightley, videos, case studies and statistical information. There is even guidance on working with domestic violence perpetrators. All of these resources can be used by managers to communicate to the workforce: the range of media in the toolkit enables the employer to use the type that suits their business best.

Simple, cost effective initiatives with immediate impact

Tackling domestic abuse doesn’t have to be costly and employers probably have some of the tools and resources in place that can be further utilised. For example, many employers have wellbeing programs in place that link with their in-house wellbeing policies and initiatives, but domestic violence and abuse can be overlooked. A starting point is to include domestic violence and abuse into company policies. As with all policies and procedures, identifying roles and responsibilities and how the company deals with the issue is key. A definition of what domestic abuse is also needs to be included.

Running an in-house campaign can be very effective. This will let the workforce know they will be supported if they choose to make a disclosure, that domestic abuse can be discussed and steer them to services in place to help. If the organisation engages an employee assistance programme provider for their staff, it shouldn’t be forgotten that they can also offer confidential advice. Sometimes a simple poster campaign can be enough to let employees know that their employer acknowledges the issue and give information about where assistance can be sought.

Training is also vital and extremely effective. All employees should be trained to recognise the signs of abuse, what to do if a colleague discloses they are living with domestic abuse and what the company’s arrangements are. Organisations need to recognise that domestic violence and abuse does not discriminate; it can affect anyone, regardless of social background, disability, age, gender, religion, sexuality or ethnicity.

Getting help

If you are an employer interested in knowing more, are enduring domestic abuse yourself, or are worried about a friend or colleague, there is a wealth of information at your disposal, including the following.