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The role of the workplace and the rise of domestic abuse

Published on April 15, 2020

One of the many saddening effects of Covid 19 is the huge rise of Domestic Abuse across the globe. The UK’s leading Domestic Abuse charity, Refuge, reported a 700% increase in calls in a single day. But what is the role of HR and the workplace when it comes to Domestic Abuse, and how can victims still get help in a global pandemic, when the nation has been ordered to “stay at home”?

What is domestic abuse?

Domestic Abuse takes many different forms, not just physical and sexual violence. It also includes threats, coercive control, gaslighting, and emotional and financial abuse. All of which are now illegal and punishable.

Eliminating shame

As a survivor myself, I now feel proud of what I have overcome. However when I was in an abusive relationship, I didn’t want to admit what was happening. I thought that being abused meant that I was weak. It went against everything I knew about myself - most people that know me would say I was a strong person. I now know that abuse can happen to anybody. Many strong, intelligent, successful women and men can still be manipulated, controlled and abused. It happens gradually, so you don’t even realise what’s happening until it’s too late. Like the analogy of boiling a frog alive by slowly cranking up the heat - if you threw it into a pan of boiling hot water, it would jump straight out.

Being a victim of abuse has no reflection on you as person or as an employee and it’s so important to get this message across. Having honest conversations and opening up lines of communication is so important to relieve this stigma and help remove the sense of shame often attached to abuse victims. Often people don’t understand how abuse works, so it's so important to educate employees and encourage people to talk.

I spoke to Emily Hawkins, Group People Director at M&C Saatchi, who has done some very important work around raising awareness of domestic abuse in her workplace. I was especially moved by one particular line in her policy which states that “it takes a lot of strength to deal with the day to day impact of domestic abuse and the victims of this are to be respected for their resilience.”

The role of HR

Often coming to work is the only respite that victims have from the cycle of abuse. Emily passionately believes that HR leaders and managers in the business should be equipped to talk about domestic abuse, and offer support where necessary. Some of the ways she has done this within her business include;

  • Writing a specific, accessible policy on Domestic Abuse and the support available

  • Educating employees on what abuse is and having a clear zero-tolerance policy

  • Communicating to potential victims where and how they can get help and signpost resources

  • Using positive, encouraging, motivating language, acknowledging the victims strength

  • Encouraging and equipping managers to open up conversations with their team

  • Offering paid time off for related activities such as meeting support services and/or solicitors, rearranging housing, or attending court appointments

  • Offering flexibility on start and finish times or m

aking changes to working times and patterns

  • Putting in place measures to ensure a safe working environment, for example changing a telephone number to avoid harassment, redirecting emails, informing security

  • Offering access to therapists and courses to support survivors of domestic abuse, for example The Freedom Programme

  • Balancing any efforts with the employees right for privacy - addressing the fact that employees may be fearful of reporting anything, and assuring them that any disclosures will be dealt with sensitively

How can we still help in the midst of a global pandemic?

Trying to actually get any work done from home when you live with an abusive partner must be impossible. Not to mention that it is far more difficult to reach out and ask for help when you can’t get a moment of freedom.

Be creative about the ways in which your employees can signpost abuse virtually. Consider using whistleblowing apps and other flexible tools to report abuse. Encourage your managers to make individual calls to check in with their team, not just over email or text. You could look at having agreed code words to use in the event that somebody is in danger and needs help.

Positive changes

Within the last few days, Home Secretary Priti Patel has spoken out to insist that help for Domestic Abuse is still available. Victims can still access the services that you need at this particular time, and the household isolation instruction as a result of COVID-19 does not apply if you need to leave your home to escape domestic abuse. Its important that people continue to share this message, as many abusers will be taking advantage of the lockdown to exert their control even further, and make their victim feel that they have no way out and cannot access support services.

The Home Office campaign and its hashtag

#YouAreNotAlone, will hopefully encourage the public to come together to show their support for victims. Some hotel chains have been opening up their rooms for people fleeing domestic abuse. This week a huge government social media marketing effort will begin to raise awareness of where people can seek help.

Raising awareness

It is not only crucial that managers and HR are sensitive and supportive, but that the business and its individuals continue to raise awareness of domestic abuse. Having workplace champions and opening up conversations will help to highlight the issue and encourage employees to come forward.

How are other HR leaders dealing with issues of domestic abuse and other mental health and wellbeing challenges at this time?

I would love to hear your thoughts


24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline number – 0808 2000 247 – run by Refuge

Anyone in immediate danger should call 999 and if it is too dangerous for you to speak, press 55

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