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How employers can help provide support for domestic abuse victims at work

22 January 2021: With more staff working from home during the pandemic, the need for employers to be aware of domestic abuse and provide practical and emotional support and signposting of specialist services has never been greater.

The office has traditionally offered an escape for some victims of domestic abuse, but lockdown has changed this. Domestic violence support charity Refuge reported a 700% increase in visits to its National Domestic Abuse Helpline website during the initial lockdown between April and June 2020. 

The January publication of the Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy Workplace Support for Victims of Domestic Abuse report aims to provide better guidance for employers who may be supporting the 2.3 million people who suffer domestic abuse each year, wherever they may be working. 

The report follows a review of existing workplace support. It also aims to reduce the £14bn economic cost of domestic abuse, such as reduced productivity or lost output.

And it’s not just women who are suffering. A third of the 2.3 million victims are men. 

How employers can recognise the signs

The report highlights the urgency for employers to recognise the signs of domestic abuse, especially since they can be subtle and may be misread. For example, abusers often gain control through economic abuse, so staff being late for work or missing meetings, even online, can signify that abuse is happening. It may also be an underlying reason for poor performance. 

“It’s important for employers to recognise the wide-ranging impacts domestic abuse has on a survivor,” explains Sophie Francis-Cansfield, senior campaigns and policy officer at Women’s Aid. 

She says employers should check in on staff wellbeing regularly. “It’s about making sure there is time for coffee and a chat, and if an employee has missed a couple of meetings thinking there might be a reason. It’s joining up the dots.”

What employers can do to help

Having workplace champions who may be willing to talk about their own experiences, as well as line managers and HR professionals trained in recognising domestic abuse, can help trigger conversations.

But employers also need to be vocal in setting out a clear, accessible and robust company policy on dealing with domestic abuse. As well as highlighting the signs of abuse, education and practical steps to ensure safety in the workplace, such policies need to include other measures too – such as how the employer can support staff with flexible working and paid leave. The report found that even small changes can also have a big impact, such as paying salaries into separate accounts or taking staff details off company websites. 

Culture is vital, according to Ippo Panteloudakis, head of services at Respect, which runs the Men’s Advice Line for male victims of domestic abuse. “Employers need to change the culture of the company in relation to domestic abuse,” he commented. “They must aim that, over time, no employee feels embarrassed to disclose they experience domestic abuse, and they take it for granted that their employer will be supportive.” 

That gives the victim more confidence to confide, although Francis-Cansfield warns that not all will. “It’s not about pressurising survivors to share but making sure that in the workplace, domestic abuse isn’t ignored or tolerated. If you want to share, there’s a safe environment for you to do that,” she says. 

The vital role of signposting and relationship building 

Signposting is vital to make sure the relevant support information and organisations are visible, perhaps through posters or intranet pages. Examples during the pandemic included adding help buttons to online support services, the report found. 

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with domestic abuse, a fact also highlighted in the Government report. Traditionally male-dominated workplaces must realise that it is an issue that can also impact on its staff. “Be very clear that domestic abuse affects men too and it’s ok to ask for help,” says Respect’s Panteloudakis. “Do not frame abuse as a women’s issue, have separate discussions with men and women if needed.” 

This means building relationships with a wide range of support organisations to best meet the needs of the individual, including those representing specific niche groups such as LGBT or disabled staff. “It’s about ensuring the right support for the right person,” says Francis-Cansfield.

She suggests that staff training can help build those vital links, as well as providing support for employers who may lack confidence in dealing with the issue. “We are not asking employers to be the experts but just to provide a safe first response.” 

Employer steps in tackling domestic abuse

  • Recognise the signs 
  • Have a clear, no-tolerance company policy 
  • Raise awareness within the company so that victims know they can seek help
  • Encourage workplace champions to talk about their own experiences
  • Allow flexible working, leave and other supportive measures
  • Acknowledge that domestic abuse can impact both sexes
  • Signpost to specialist support services that are most relevant to the individual and build relationships between those organisations and your business 

Further resources