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Bad for people, bad for business – domestic violence and the workplace

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Did you know that an estimated 8.5% of women and 4.5% of men have experienced domestic violence in the last year, in England and Wales?

Domestic violence has serious and prolonged impacts on physical and mental health for those enduring violence, and also their children. Over 1.4 million women and 700,000 men endured violence perpetrated by a partner or ex-partner in the last year.

With an employment rate of around 73% this means over 1.5 million employees experienced domestic violence in the last year.

The impacts of domestic violence on individuals in the workplace are understandable; if you are living in fear it is unlikely that your mind will be 100% in your job. Although it’s important to recognise that many people enduring violence go to extreme lengths to maintain the quality and commitment to work because it is one of the few safe spaces where they can be separate from their abuser and be with peers and friends in a safe space.

The bottom line impact for business can sadly be even more serious. Two adults each week are killed by their partner or ex-partner; the impacts of a domestic homicide are devastating for those around the victim, including their work colleagues and employers.

There is always a period of reflection that perhaps ‘we could have done something’, and for employers the answer could be ‘yes, we could, and if we had the outcome might have been different’.

Businesses are often nervous about getting involved in ‘personal issues’, but there is a responsibility for employers to take reasonable action to protect the health and safety of their employees and there is a clear moral and ethical reason to provide access to support and help for individuals enduring violence.

It is important to also recognise that some employees may be perpetrators and these individuals need support to access services to help them move away from perpetration.

Businesses can take simple steps to support staff around domestic violence:

Raising awareness of the topic among staff and signposting to the support that is out there is probably the most fundamental first step. Using opportunities such as the 16 days of global action to prompt conversations in the office using posters, blogs and articles in internal newsletters, helps to make it safer for people to reach out for help.

Research shows that many people endure violence for months and sometimes years before reaching out for help and part of this delay is about the shame and stigma that is perpetuated by society not talking about the topic and individuals feeling unable to disclose.

Get the policies right, thinking about how the organisation will respond to a member of staff reaching out for help before it happens is always better than having to respond without any preparation. In large businesses there might be opportunities to think about relocation allowances being used to support people to move out of the violent home into a refuge while remaining in work, where their employment might be a barrier to accessing local authority funding for the refuge placement. In smaller organisations having a clear plan and knowledge of where to signpost people to local support services can make a real difference – simply providing a safe space for a person to pick up the phone to a specialist organisation can save a life.

Get more involved, businesses are important stakeholders in the health of the local population and there are lots of local domestic violence organisations who are keen to form partnerships with local businesses. Some partnerships may be financial for specialist support like refuges and the national help lines for women and for men.

But there is also an appetite for non-financial support, many are looking for board trustees or support in kind with marketing, communications or account auditing, and this kind of community involvement and volunteering pays back in benefits for individuals, the business and the wider community.

Working with the Corporate Alliance Against Domestic Violence, Public Health England  launched an online toolkit for businesses in 2014 to help highlight some of the specific support and advice available and share some of the emerging practice in England.

As a business PHE has been working with the Alliance over the last two years to improve our support for staff, raising the conversation with internal articles and incorporating domestic violence awareness into line manager training, as well as undertaking a policy audit and revising and updating our policies to make sure that when staff reach out for help, anywhere across our national footprint, that we respond.

Domestic violence is a complex issue and one that thrives in silence and invisibility. Challenging this and bringing the conversation into the workplace is a key part of the whole system response that is needed to truly change the experience of people enduring violence and the children and families they support.

Declaration of interest: The blog's author Dr Varney became a non-paid board member of the Corporate Alliance Against Domestic Violence in 2015 after completion of the work on the business toolkit.

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