During the first national lockdown last March, Refuge reported an 80% in calls to its domestic abuse hotline. In the year up to March 2020, estimates suggest more than one in 20 UK adults experienced domestic abuse – a staggering proportion of the population.
Worryingly, new government reports suggest a similar picture is emerging during the latest lockdown. Business minister Paul Scully has issued a rallying cry for UK employers to do more to help spot the warning signs and help employees find support.
The growth in cases is alarming, and Scully’s report has found that few employers know what the signs of domestic abuse look like, and an even smaller number have a clear policy in place to support survivors.
Under current health and safety laws, employers have a duty of care to provide employees with a safe place of work. If an employer fails to take reasonable steps to protect employees from harassment by a perpetrator of domestic abuse whilst at work, they could be in breach of the law.
And where the physical workplace once offered a safe space for some survivors, with the majority of the UK population now working from home it’s more important than ever that practical steps are taken to catch warning signs at the earliest opportunity.
Spotting signs and signposting support
Putting in place those initial safety nets doesn’t have to be a costly or time-consuming exercise.
We’ve seen the widespread successes of the Mental Health First Aider scheme that many workplaces now have in place, and having specially trained employees to act as a point of contact and ‘lookout’ for domestic abuse would have a similarly huge impact.
Not only can champions be on the watch for warning signs – such as patterns of absenteeism, changes in job performance and emotional distress – they can also connect survivors to support services.
Other simple steps include putting up helpline posters in bathrooms when we return to the office or sharing this valuable information on internal microsites or email bulletin. Not only is it a helpful resource, it will help break the taboo and create those conversations that will make it easier for survivors to come forwards.
Practical steps to support employees
One of the most valuable support mechanisms an employer can put in place is offering paid leave for survivors of domestic abuse. Paid leave provides a much-needed buffer to allow survivors to flee abuse and find somewhere safe to stay, and seek legal advice or medical support.
Countries worldwide have already made this law, with New Zealand, the Philippines and Canada offering around 10 days paid leave per year for domestic abuse survivors.
A number of organisations in the UK are also beginning to follow suit and voluntarily introduce paid leave policies, with EY, Vodafone and Wirral Council among those leading the charge.
In a similar vein, offering to pay taxi fares to and from court hearings or medical appointments will help to remove any potential barrier to legal and medical aid.
Providing second phones is another lifeline for survivors to seek help if their phone is being tracked or stalked by their perpetrator, and will go a long way to support anyone suffering coercive control or stalking.
There is always room to do more to support domestic abuse survivors and a great deal of taboo remains around the subject. Staff are an employer’s biggest asset, and looking after their wellbeing is paramount.
Nick Campbell is head of employment at law firm Brabners.