Business Ethics is a broad church, covering many considerations. Staff welfare is way up there and thankfully, health & safety is uppermost in the minds of employers. What about domestic abuse? How does this affect your colleagues. Find out more in this blog.

At the time of writing, it is World Safety and Health at Work Day, and arts education company Changing Relations’ Director, Lisa Davis, is here to ask you if domestic abuse features in your thinking in relation to this topic.

As a company, Changing Relations uses the arts to give voice to those affected by the issues we’re concerned with; give valuable insight into experiences we may never have considered; generate awareness & empathy; & create a safe, open space to explore thorny issues that people tend to feel uncomfortable broaching. 

To help illustrate the issue of domestic abuse as a health & safety concern, Lisa draws upon a series of sound clips gathered from domestic abuse survivors who shared testimony of their experiences in the making of Us Too, a soundscape that Changing Relations draws upon in their workplace training, Demystifying Domestic Abuse.

Starting with health, take a listen to the testimonies of Ester and Victoria. As you listen, think about why domestic abuse might have such a powerful impact on our mental health.

Isolation? Fear? Being ground down? The sense there is no way out? The impression that no one is paying attention to what is happening to you so perhaps you don’t matter?

We can see this reflected in this statistic from the Mental Health Foundation that indicates that mental health problems are a common consequence of experiencing domestic abuse:

  • 30-60% of women with a mental health problem have experienced domestic violence

In terms of how this could play out in a workplace context, a key report from the Vodafone Foundation indicates that, of companies who believed their employees to be affected by domestic abuse:

  • 54% said it caused the quality of an employee’s work to suffer
  • 56% said it led to absenteeism

In terms of how this relates to workplace health and safety legislation, employment law firm Farrer and Co point out the way that adverse mental health resulting from experiences of domestic abuse related to the Equality Act:

  • “If physical or mental injuries arising from domestic abuse have a substantial and long-term adverse effect on the victim’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities, they will satisfy the definition of a disability under the Equality Act 2010. If an employee is disabled, the employer should make reasonable adjustments to remove substantial disadvantages, including potentially to performance or absence management processes. Failure to make reasonable adjustments could result in a discrimination claim.”

Now it may be tempting to conclude that if your organisation is addressing mental health, you’ve covered domestic abuse as well. But this doesn’t account for the complexity of an abusive context, whereby another individual is actively affecting the person in question.

This brings us to consider safety, and here we have another example from Us Too, where Victoria shares the “interference tactics” her partner used to use that in the end pushed her to leaving her job. 

It’s worth noting some statistics here, given Victoria’s story:

  • 16% of the companies had shared that domestic abuse had led to employees leaving their roles
  • 25% said harassment occurred within the workplace
  • 17% said it had caused security issues for other employees
  • Whilst a phenomenal 75% of employed partner violence victims are affected by interference tactics that can be used to exert control over the victim’s employment or job opportunities.

Going back to employment law, Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 obliges employers to conduct a suitable and sufficient risk assessment and identify preventative measures. Employers’ obligations in relation to health and safety apply, irrespective of whether the employee works from the workplace or from their home, as many currently still are.

Interestingly, a report into an occurrence of domestic abuse at the University of Sussex, cites the failure to see domestic abuse as constituting a risk in terms of health and safety within the workplace as a factor in the poor handling of the case involving a student and staff member.

By contrast, our client Believe Housing, provides an excellent positive alternative, supporting a staff member who had left an abusive relationship by considering where in the building to position her desk to reduce the risk of such interference tactics as Victoria described in the sound clip above, ensuring she was not on the ground floor nor visible through a window.  

So clearly domestic abuse can be related to the health and safety legislation that places a duty to take reasonable care of the health and safety of employees, arising from the original Health and Safety at Work Act in 1974.

But how does this play out in reality?

Turning back to the Vodafone report, we can see that whilst a fantastic 86% of HR leads agreed that employers have a duty of care to support their employees with regards to domestic abuse. Yet only 5% of employers had a specific policy in place to cover domestic abuse among their workforce compared to 68% with a specific wellbeing policy or 41% with a mental health policy, suggesting that employers still see domestic abuse as sitting outside their duty of care.

More recently than this report from 2017, we collaborated with Durham University academic, Dr Stephen Burrell, in 2021 on a survey exploring gender equality in the north-east business sector, following the first year of the pandemic, during which multiple reports indicated the incidence of domestic abuse had been exacerbated.

We found that 

  • 45% of respondents were unsure whether their business does a good job of addressing domestic abuse

whilst a further

  • 19% disagreed or strongly disagreed that their business was doing a good job of addressing domestic abuse

Our participants told us

“I’ve seen a lot of work being done on wellbeing but no mention of domestic abuse.”

“My organization have not done anything to address the possibility a member of staff could be suffering domestic abuse…the opportunity of support has not been shared for a impacted member of staff to have the opportunity to reach out.”

“It’s never been mentioned in any company awareness campaign.”

“Domestic abuse has never been discussed, mentioned, nor is it in a policy now or during the pandemic.”

“I’m not sure any of the team would know what to look out for and what to do if they suspected it.”

Why might we see this gap between the recognition of domestic abuse as a workplace issue and any substantive workplace action?

Have a listen to this example from Us Too to help you consider what you think could be one of the reasons behind the gap.

Going back to the Vodafone report, HR Leads were able to estimate fairly accurately the proportions of those in the general public affected by domestic abuse (saying 26% of women & 15% of men were likely to be affected) but only estimated that 4% of their own workforce were affected.

We could see this as a hangover of class-based prejudice about domestic abuse as a working class issue, the NIMBYism of “it couldn’t possibly be happening to people like us.”

But there could be other reasons at play. 

Listen to L describe his experiences of abuse & consider what is it about the fundamental experience of domestic abuse that might affect our tendency to think about it more proactively in the workplace context? 

What we can see from this example is that hiding what is going on is part of the victim’s experience of coercive control. They have been intimidated into doing what their controlling partner says & are conscious that their partner would not want them to share their internal relationship dynamics. There may be fear at play of what would they do if they found out they’d shared anything.

So when we consider that of the 200+ companies surveyed by Vodafone,there was an average of 0.5 disclosures of abuse made in each organization in the preceding 12 months, it is perhaps not a surprise.

But from the workplace perspective, this can present a bit of a circular problem. A company doesn’t receive disclosures, perhaps in part due to the dynamics of abuse described above, and so assumes there is no problem. 

Whilst the majority of the testimonies on the subject of domestic abuse in our 2021 survey were along the negative lines quoted previously, a couple of positive examples really stood out:

“Our work environment is open enough that people can discuss personal things and we have 2 mental health trained staff as well so staff feel they would not be judged.”

“We have a member of staff who was in an abusive relationship. We were able to support them and ultimately helped them to move on. This demonstrates to all staff members that our organization is supportive in deeds not just words. Stress levels and stress management techniques are thought about and part of the routine here. It makes for a more productive workforce.”

These positive examples really emphasise a key dimension to the circular problem, namely that if we don’t make it ok to raise domestic abuse within our company culture, those whose confidence has been diminished by an abusive partner are unlikely to feel comfortable to come forward and make a disclosure. Whereas if we create an open and supportive company culture… we might find someone builds the confidence to come forward.

We have seen this happen with our training client, Believe Housing. Shortly after we had delivered our training, one of their staff members came forward to disclose that she was experiencing domestic abuse and it had pushed her to the point of not being able to cope any more. She was ready to hand in her notice. But our client was so committed to their duty of care, and aware that if she left her role, her options to leave the abusive relationship would be greatly reduced as she would lose her financial independence, that they looked at a range of ways they could support this staff member, who remained in post and later told them: 

“I can’t tell you the difference you have made to my life.”

This brings us to consider what we can do in our own workplace. From the examples we have shared, from the survivors featuring in our soundscape, to our survey respondents and our client’s employee, here are a few top tips:

  1. Make space to listen to survivors 
  2.  Create a culture where it is ok to talk about domestic abuse
  3. Don’t assume that not disclosing means everything is fine – ask if you aren’t sure someone is ok
  4. Pay attention to subtle factors like whether someone has stopped engaging in workplace social activities, whether they’re frequently late or absent from work, whether their productivity has dropped & take an open, explorative approach to this rather than a punitive one
  5. Challenge the idea that domestic abuse only happens to certain people

To conclude, the Vodafone report cites the key barriers that stand in the way of companies taking concerted action on domestic abuse as part of their commitment to the safety and health of their employees:

  • Low awareness of the issue
  • Lack of training
  • Lack of policy
  • Unwillingness of staff to discuss the issues
  • Lack of skills to help someone affected
  • Lack of clarity about the external support available

These are all factors that we can address in our workplace if we have the will to do so. Changing Relations can help you with this, so get in touch!

Lisa Davis – Founder, Changing Relations