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Domestic abuse: breaking the silence across business

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 15 Mar 2021

An ICAEW member outlines her experience of domestic abuse and how the workplace can provide a network outside of the home where victims feel safe to speak out about what they are going through.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought the issue of domestic abuse to the fore, as specialist charities report record numbers of calls to hotlines over the past year and demand for services by victims exposes a huge domestic abuse crisis.

It’s a subject extremely close to the heart of one ICAEW member, who we’ll call Joanna. She spoke to us about the years of mental abuse she had experienced at the hands of her father. His controlling, emotionally abusive behaviour left Joanna constantly on edge, battling mental health problems and struggling to form meaningful relationships.

Around four years ago, the situation came to a head. “I think I had a breakdown,” she explains. “I was still managing to go to work, but I realised how toxic my relationship with my family was. If I’d been able to recognise the signs, I’d have understood better what was going on. I’m hoping that by sharing my story it will help other people spot when things are wrong.”

Joanna remembers how she’d get home from work and feel relieved if her father wasn’t there. “Then I’d hear the door slam and immediately be on edge that he was in a bad mood. I’d be constantly trying to please him and second-guess how he expected me to react in order for him not to be angry. But he’d change his mind all the time about what he wanted from me to make him happy. It was a constant battle.”

Any decisions she made were manipulated, she continues. “You always felt like it was a personal choice but now I look back, I was making decisions based on how he would react. I remember not really having any close friends as I grew up because I had to pick them carefully to avoid conflict with him. Starting a relationship was always a struggle as he criticised and interrogated every aspect of your boyfriend.”

He knew exactly how much money Joanna earned and charged rent accordingly. “When he knew I was struggling for money he would give me a loan setting out the repayment terms based on my finances, which he reviewed – every penny you owed him was recorded. This is just a snippet of the financial and emotional control he had over me and it has taken me years to realise what was happening,” she says.

Work colleagues would occasionally pick up on things Joanna told them, “but it never went anywhere because I would play it down out of a sense of loyalty, I think.” After a year and a half of counselling, Joanna finally cut ties with her parents over two years ago now. 

“I have thought about what it would have been like if I was still living with him during these lockdowns and it makes me feel physically sick and fearful. I would love to be able to reach out to anyone in this position and tell them you are not alone, and you deserve to be treated better,” Joanna says.

Lack of available coping mechanisms

Charities say that the increase in demand for domestic abuse victim services during the coronavirus pandemic does not necessarily indicate an increase in the number of victims, but perhaps an increase in the severity of abuse being experienced, and a lack of available coping mechanisms such as the ability to leave the home to escape the abuse or attend counselling.

However, the fact that almost one in three women aged 16-59 will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics (2019), is a huge cause for concern, prompting the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) to undertake a review between June and November 2020 to examine how victims of domestic abuse can be supported in the workplace.

The ensuing report, published in January this year, highlights how having a job and spending time away from perpetrators can offer a degree of independence and financial self-sufficiency, which is so important for those suffering abuse. “Their workplace can provide them with a network outside of the home that they can draw on for support and can be one of the few places where victims feel safe to speak out about what they are going through,” the report says.

With the right support and encouragement, employers can play a key role in helping to lift the lid on this often-hidden crime, Paul Scully, Minister for Small Business, Consumers and Labour Markets writes. The report concludes that an effective employer response is founded on being able to spot the signs of domestic abuse and know how to signpost to specialist services. 

To break the silence on domestic abuse and bring about culture change, the issue needs to be visible across the organisation, the report advises. This includes having up-to-date policies which are easily accessible as well as embedding support to victims of domestic abuse into wider organisational frameworks, especially diversity and inclusion, but also health and wellbeing and relevant HR policies and practices.

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