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Domestic violence has a significant, yet invisible, impact on the wellbeing of a large number of UK employees

Compared with 20 years ago, employers are now much more likely to be open to the view employee well-being is a mainstream business issue. Some are even becoming more comfortable with the notion that they have some role to play in supporting their staff to make and sustain lifestyle changes, such as losing weight, quitting smoking or eating more healthily. But there remains a dark corner of the wellbeing landscape where almost nobody goes, even though it affects a shockingly high proportion of the workforce.

I am referring to domestic violence, a topic that, for too many, remains a taboo; and I realise that just by raising it, I am exposing the uncomfortable boundary between an employee's private business and an employer's duty of care. So why is domestic violence a workforce wellbeing issue at all?

The wider problem of domestic violence has been with us for generations and levels of awareness of its causes and consequences as a social phenomenon are moderate, but still too low. However, my sense is it is almost invisible as an employment issue, despite the fact one in four women report being victims at some point in their lives and 20% of women at work report taking a period of absence as a direct consequence of domestic violence. Studies across the developed world show 95% of women being abused or stalked by their partners have experienced harassment at work. In one study, 56% of victims had been directly prevented from going to work by the perpetrator physically restraining them, cutting up work clothes, hiding keys, causing injury or stopping them from sleeping. Just like other non-work causes of ill-health and distress - such as debt, divorce or bereavement - domestic violence has a significant, yet often almost invisible, impact on the wellbeing, productivity and resilience of a very large number of UK employees, and it is time that it came out of the shadows as an issue in employment.

In 2004, my colleague at Lancaster University, Professor Sylvia Walby, published Home Office-funded research on domestic violence. It showed domestic violence is not confined to women, nor is it especially a feature of certain groups of employees, with professionals and managers reporting almost as much domestic violence as those in unskilled and manual roles. Of those women taking absence from work as a result of domestic violence, 20% took more than a week off and 2% lost their jobs.

The consequences of domestic violence for staff who are its victims can be far-reaching and long-lasting. Clinical studies have shown that, aside from physical injuries that may be sustained, the psychological harm can be complex and challenging. But being able to remain in work helps victims by improving physical safety, providing financial independence, increasing self-esteem, social connectedness and providing mental respite.

A visit to the Women's Aid website (www.womensaid.org.uk) gave me hope help is out there, not just for the victims of domestic violence, but also for employers managing its consequences and wanting to support and advise staff. The site has a template domestic violence policy for employers, so employees and line managers are clear about how to deal with this issue when it arises.

If your strategy is focused on healthy options in the canteen or subsidised gym membership, perhaps it is time to assess whether there are less obvious threats to employee wellbeing, to which you should also be giving priority...

Stephen Bevan is director of the workforce effectiveness centre at the Work Foundation