A woman walks past a block of flats in London. Photo: Getty
Every minute in the UK, the police receive a call from the public for assistance for domestic violence, with two women killed by their partner or a former partner every week. Even so, the vast majority of domestic violence incidents go unreported with a staggering one in four women and one in six men affected by domestic violence during their adult lives.
The sheer scale of the problem is such that an organisation employing just 1,000 people will have a couple of hundred employees affected at some point in their lives and a few dozen living with domestic violence at the current time. Add to that the fact that over half of the victims of domestic violence will call in sick at least three times a month and it’s no wonder that the problem is estimated to cost the UK economy well over £1.9bn a year in lost wages, productivity, absence and long term illness.
Indeed, research shows that domestic violence is surprisingly prevalent, if hidden, at work with 75 per cent of victims subjected to abusive calls, emails or texts during the working day.
Good on the Department of Health then for joining forces with the Corporate Alliance Against Domestic Violence (CAADV) to launch a pledge last month for any organisation wanting to help and support staff facing domestic violence to sign. Organisations ranging from British Airways to HMRC have already signed up and the hope is that by signing the pledge and promising to help and provide appropriate support for any victims who come forward, employers can help to take away some of the stigma associated with domestic violence and provide a safe and sensitive response to those brave enough to seek help. Not to mention reduce the £1,220,247,000 cost to the NHS of treating the physical health of the victims of domestic violence, including hospital, GP, ambulance and prescriptions.
Either way, it’s an incredibly brave thing for someone to admit to their employer that they’re being beaten or worse at home and that, yes, it probably is affecting their performance at work. By allowing victims to come forward and creating a safe place for them to admit they need help employers have an incredibly important role to play. Domestic violence is the abuse of power over one person by another. That employers can use their power to support people in need of help is a wonderful thing. On a practical level employers can allow people to do safety planning with the police during working hours, something that simply wouldn’t be possible outside of work, or adjust their hours or location to avoid stalking. On a culture level, by signing the pledge we can all stop pretending the problem doesn’t exist. It does and if you work in an organisation employing more than ten people the chances are one of them will be affected by domestic violence at some point, if they aren’t already.
At the same time, employers need to be careful not to educate their workforce so much that they can recognise when someone is affected but so little that they put victims at risk by offering inappropriate advice, such as "why don’t you just leave them" when to leave without first putting an appropriate safety plan in place could endanger their life.
The guidelines for employers and employees created in association with the pledge stress the importance of directing victims towards specialist advice from trained advisors who can assess the victim’s risk and offer confidential advice. As one such advisor, the complexity of each individual case never ceases to amaze me.
Aside from the emotional ties that often remain between a victim and their partner or the financial constraints that might be limiting their ability to leave and start a new home, things can get incredibly complicated when children are involved. Victims want and need to understand what rights of access they or an abusive partner will have once a split is initiated. Not least because various studies of the children of abused parents have found a significant proportion of the children ordered by the courts to have contact with an estranged parent have been abused, physically assaulted, involved in abduction attempts or neglected during contact visits.
All of which means that in addition to encouraging employers to sign the pledge, employees who want to "help" a colleague suffering domestic violence must also be educated to refrain from offering their own advice and instead encouraged to direct victims towards appropriate support, be this their GP, one of the free domestic violence helplines or an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) that can provide access to the expert emotional, practical, financial and legal support needed to help the victim move forward, from as little as a few pounds per employee a year.
Anne Payne is co-founder of the psychological health consultancy, The Validium Group