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Domestic violence and the workplace

Domestic abuse is under national scrutiny, but it doesn’t stay in the home

Whether you are a fan of soaps or not it will have been hard to miss, over the past few years, the rising number of domestic violence storylines. Coronation Street, Hollyoaks and EastEnders have all put hard-hitting scenes of domestic violence (DV) before their audiences, as has The Archers, which spurred around £200,000 in public donations to domestic abuse charity Refuge.

Some may view these as storylines purely meant to drive ratings. But current UK statistics put the number of women and men who experience DV in their adult lives at 1:4 and 1:6 respectively. So clearly DV is a very real problem and it’s a fair assumption that many of Britain’s workforce are enduring it at some level.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics estimate the number of DV victims annually in England and Wales is 1.9 million, with two women every week being killed by their abusers.

Domestic abuse does not always involve violence and can take many forms, including physical, sexual, emotional, psychological and financial. Age, ethnicity, religion, sexuality or socio-economic background don’t matter, and it doesn’t stop at the front door.

Home Office figures show that 75% of people who endure DV will be targeted in the workplace, around 58% of abused women will miss at least three days of work a month, and 2% will lose their jobs as a direct result. But regrettably less than 30% of employers know how to respond.

So what can employers do to help support employees? Much information and support is already in the public domain from organisations such as Refuge, Respect, Mankind, Women’s Aid and SafeLives. The government has backed various initiatives over the years to raise awareness with employers.

The latest is a toolkit by Public Health England (PHE) and Business in the Community, set for publication in 2018. Started by the Employers Initiative on Domestic Abuse (EIDA) with trustee of the Vodafone Foundation Elizabeth Filkin, the free resource aims to give employers a clear understanding of domestic abuse, its impact, recognising the signs, creating a safe environment, and knowing how and when to take action.

Launched in 2016 the EIDA is a network of 120 UK employers that have signed up to work together to develop best practice. “There’s no fee; our only ask is that employers who join consider what they can do and follow through with it. They don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but they can look at others and learn from them and share whatever works,” says Filkin.

She explains that the toolkit, which will be launched in November, was inspired by an initiative developed in 2011 by the Vodafone Foundation. TecSos is a collaboration that puts specialist technology into the hands of vulnerable people, giving them direct and immediate contact with the police.

It was off the back of this, says Vodafone UK’s corporate and external affairs director Helen Lamprell, that the organisation took a look at itself. “We said: ‘This is great, but are we stepping up to the plate as an employer? Are we looking after our own people? Are we talking about it?’” she explains. “Much as mental health used to be a subject that people didn’t like talking about and there was an element of taboo about it, I think it’s the same with domestic violence.” Vodafone UK is now engaged in line manager education around DV and assessing what processes it needs to support employees.

Lamprell says that Vodafone UK already has an employee-led, voluntary, confidential listening service at its Bracknell ‘hub’, which it hopes to roll out nationwide. It also subscribes to an employee assistance programme (EAP), but Lamprell says more can be done.

Amanda Smith, executive board member of EAP membership body the UK Employee Assistance Professionals Association, says that while not a catch-all for tackling domestic violence through the workplace, the immediacy EAPs provide is key.

However, Melissa Morbeck, executive director of the UK Corporate Alliance Against Domestic Violence – which itself produced a DV employer toolkit as part of the 16 days of Action campaign with PHE in 2014 – advises that “EAPs aren’t your get out of jail free card.”

“This isn’t about victim mentality; it’s about ownership and responsibility and making sure that your employees are safe, healthy and able to contribute,” she adds.

Morbeck says that apart from the strong ethical case for employers to educate and empower employees, there is also a strong business case in terms of productivity loss. Home Office figures suggest that DV costs the UK economy around £1.9 billion a year and Morbeck adds that it’s not just about job losses and absenteeism, but also presenteeism.

She explains: “Businesses have often taken the approach that employees should leave problems at home, but that person may be being terrorised, stalked or coersively controlled. They could be getting calls, texts, maybe up to 200 emails a day while they’re at work, so they’re there but there’s ‘no-one home’.”

And employers have a strong legal responsibility around DV. Women’s Aid national training centre manager Jacqui Kilburn says many employers are shocked when they realise that under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 they could be held liable for failing to protect employees from DV.

“It’s about criminal liability and failure in the management of health and safety that could, in the worst case, result in a fatality. Businesses are well aware of health and safety requirements but they don’t ever consider applying them to domestic abuse,” says Kilburn.

Women’s Aid has delivered DV training to employers for five years. Kilburn says the ideal is to have a “whole company approach” where employees are aware of policy from their first day, posters and literature are visible and accessible, awareness days and fundraising events are the norm, and most importantly the workplace is seen as safe. “It’s a huge culture shift,” she explains. “You don’t wait for something to happen; you should operate in a proactive way. The whole concept then becomes open.”

Kilburn says the signs to look out for are many and varied. Employers and colleagues should be wary of jumping to conclusions and pressurising people to ‘disclose’. She says ‘buddying’ (which some firms have implemented for staff that may be afraid to walk outside alone), should be used with caution because an employee may be being watched. Highly effective, Kilburn stresses, is investing in awareness workshops and training of staff ‘champions’.

Many organisations, ranging from the Kering Group of luxury brands through to the NHS and the army are showing leadership on the issue. Regrettably many – it was clear from the number who declined to comment for this piece – are not.

But whether it is through ignorance of an “uncomfortable subject” as one employer put it, lack of resources, or simply lack of training, with a new Domestic Violence and Abuse Act in the pipeline and £20 million pledged by government to support DV victims over the next two years it appears that the national conversation is getting louder. Hopefully more employers are now listening.