The Coronavirus crisis has seen employers and employees face unprecedented challenges, with entire sectors of the economy locked down and workforces moved from from office to home. These changes have had a number of impacts - and sadly, one of those has been an increase in domestic abuse. The shift to home working meant that many victims of domestic abuse were unable to access what is often their only safe space - the workplace. Calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline, run by Refuge, and visits to its website have risen exponentially during the crisis.
But if the malign effects of the virus on the level of domestic abuse have had one constructive consequence: there is so much more public awareness of the plight of those suffering, as well as more understanding that domestic abuse takes many forms.
It does not always result in bruises. It’s not always evident by shouting or screaming. Indeed, for both those who experience abuse and their perpetrators, it is not always visible at all. Domestic abuse can be physical, but it is also psychological – from coercive control, to isolating people from their independence. It can be destructively subtle, to both the person experiencing it and their family, friends and colleagues. It can be financial control, not letting a person access their own money, and therefore their freedom. And of course, it affects men and women – of all ages, races, religion, and socio-economic status.
No matter the background or circumstance of the person being abused, nor the symptoms that signify the abuse, it is devastating, it wrecks lives, and too often, it takes them.
To their credit, the government have taken steps to provide extra support for those experiencing domestic abuse, with the launch of their #YouAreNotAlone campaign, signposting support for victims in venues such as supermarkets.
We’ve also seen amazing innovation from many members of the Employers’ Initiative on Domestic Abuse (EIDA) as they’ve sought to continue supporting employees working at home. Lloyds Banking Group informed staff that if they needed to leave home, they would arrange hotel accommodation and help them move. Boots, Morrisons and other pharmacies are providing safe spaces in their shops for customers facing domestic abuse to access support.
Tackling domestic abuse isn't just the right thing to do. The most recent Home Office figures show that £1.3 billion was spent on dealing with domestic abuse in England and Wales in 2016/17. This represents more than ten percent of the policing budget. The same research showed that lost economic output and reduced productivity resulting from domestic abuse cost the country £14 billion. This is in addition to the nearly £50 billion the Home Office estimated was the cost of physical and emotional harm. There is a financial argument to be made for tackling domestic abuse through the workplace – it makes economic sense.
And now, as more and more people start to return to the workplace, we have a unique opportunity to capitalise on the stronger profile of the evil of domestic abuse and to get help to victims.
For employers, that starts with raising awareness and breaking down the stigma of domestic abuse. By having a domestic abuse policy, and making it clear that there is help available for employees who are affected, employers create a supportive work environment that will enable employees affected by domestic abuse to acknowledge to themselves or their employer that their relationships are abusive or coercive, and this can help prevent the escalation of such behaviour.
Employers should also ensure that they signpost employees to appropriate services. This could include the Bright Sky mobile app, which is free to download from the App Store or Google Play and provides support and information to anyone who may be experiencing domestic abuse or is concerned about someone they know. The National Domestic Abuse Helpline is also available 24-hours a day, for free and in confidence on 0808 2000 247.
It's important that employers are able to respond appropriately if an employee chooses to disclose their experience of domestic abuse. If they do, listen to them without judgement. Take care not to blame them or excuse the perpetrator’s behaviour. Do not ask them why they have not left or tell them to leave.
A great first step for employers is to join EIDA - a dynamic community of large and small businesses sharing learning and experience to better support all those affected by domestic abuse. Membership is free and gives you access to a wide range of resources to help you support your employees.
When employers demonstrate they are aware of domestic abuse and make staff aware of the support available, this can help to reduce the wall of silence that prevents many from seeking help. And although this is not what motivates our members, it’s worth noting that the cost of domestic abuse to business is estimated at £1.9bn – in the form of decreased productivity, time off work, lost wages and sick pay.