Termed by the UN as the “shadow pandemic”, the coronavirus crisis has led to a surge in the number of reports of domestic abuse: the National Domestic Abuse Helpline saw a 65% increase in calls and contacts between April and June, compared with the first three months of the year; and in May, visits to the Refuge website increased by 950% compared to pre-lockdown levels.
Home is clearly not a safe place for everyone, and for those individuals at risk, the transition to home working for many has taken away the physical workplace as a place of refuge. But there remains a critical role for employers to play in raising awareness, breaking the stigma and creating a supportive environment for all survivors of domestic abuse.
Who experiences domestic abuse?
In the year ending March 2020, an estimated 7.3% of women (1.6 million) and 3.6% of men (757,000) experienced domestic abuse. Figures are likely to be higher given that many cases are not reported to the police (ONS).
Although domestic abuse does not discriminate - it can happen to anyone, no matter their gender, age, race, religion, social class, sexual orientation or disability - some groups do face additional challenges. For example, in same-sex relationships, a perpetrator may use an individual’s fear of being “outed” as a method of control, or where a disabled person’s partner is also their carer, they may threaten to withdraw their care.
We should also remember that domestic abuse does not just take place between intimate partners; it can occur between other family members too.
How does it affect work?
Not all domestic abuse happens at home. Research has found that 75% of women experiencing domestic abuse are targeted at work, for example through threatening phone calls and emails, physical assaults and unannounced visits. But work is also one of the few places survivors can physically create a distance from their perpetrator and have the opportunity to access the support they need.
We don’t simply leave behind our home lives when we turn up for work – and even less so now with many people working from home. Domestic abuse costs businesses an estimated £1.9 billion a year as a result of decreased productivity, time off work, lost wages and sick pay. Evidence consistently shows the damaging impact on individuals’ health and wellbeing and workplace performance. And we know that in the worst-case scenario, it can tragically cost lives.
What should employers do?
Not only is there a clear business and moral case, but employers also have by law a duty of care to all their employees. This means that all reasonable steps should be taken to ensure their health, safety and wellbeing. Fundamentally, organisations should:
- recognise the issue – having a policy can set out the employer’s commitment to taking domestic abuse seriously and help to create an environment where people feel safe to talk about the issue
- respond appropriately – while managers are not expected to be experts, they should be trained to spot the signs – for those working remotely, this could include agreeing code words or hand signals to alert others – as well as to respond sensitively to disclosures. Key to this is ensuring that they do not victim-blame or pass judgement
- provide practical, tailored support – do not make assumptions about people’s experiences and what they may need. Discuss the options available, making sure the employee agrees to any action so they feel in control of the situation
- keep a clear and accurate record of incidents at work, including persistent phone calls, emails and visits, as well as disclosures and actions taken.
As Business Minister Paul Scully recently said: “Employers are perfectly placed to help lift the lid on this often hidden and always hideous crime.”
Domestic abuse is and has always been a workplace issue. The sooner all employers recognise this, the greater our chances of ensuring it is no longer hidden in the shadows.
Acas has just published guidance on domestic abuse for those working from home during the pandemic. Businesses can also find further support through the Employers' Initiative on Domestic Abuse (EIDA) and the Everyone’s Business Advice Line launched by charity Hestia.