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Diana* was seven months pregnant when her husband punched her in the stomach in front of their young daughter. After a night in hospital, the baby was safe. After five years in an abusive marriage, Diana had reached breaking point.
A manager at a US-based global publishing company, she missed work for a week while she recovered, changed the locks at home and obtained a restraining order. She knew she had to tell her employer, in case her husband turned up at her office, but she found it difficult. “Dealing with intimate partner violence is shameful,” she says.
The talk with the human resources department proved decisive. Diana’s employer allowed her time off to attend “endless” court hearings and meetings with lawyers. When the abuse continued, with her husband calling her mobile phone hundreds of times in an hour, the company’s security team took extra measures to prevent unauthorised guests entering the building.
In the UK, the Office for National Statistics’ 2017 Crime Survey for England and Wales reported that 7.5 per cent (1.2m) of women and 4.3 per cent of men (713,000) aged between 16 and 59 had experienced domestic abuse in the past year. However, the survey noted the figures might not reflect the number of those experiencing abuse in the form of controlling behaviour. Domestic abuse can include physical violence, as well as emotional, verbal or financial abuse, stalking and coercive intimidation.
“Domestic abuse is about control, and a workplace may be the one place [people] come to where they are on their own, so it’s an incredible opportunity to offer the support they need,” says Katie Ghose, chief executive of Women’s Aid, a UK charity.
Proportion of people experiencing domestic violence who will be targeted at their place of work
Melissa Morbeck is executive director of the Corporate Alliance Against Domestic Violence, a UK non-profit organisation that helps employers support staff who are suffering domestic abuse. Most employers claim “it doesn’t happen here,” she says. The statistics indicate, however, that it probably does.
Seventy-five per cent of people experiencing domestic violence will be targeted at their place of work because the abuser knows they will be there, according to Partnership for Prevention, a US health promotion programme. In the US, just over a quarter of domestic violence homicides took place on work premises, according to a 2012 US study.
Domestic abuse has implications for a business’s own health. In the UK, the Corporate Alliance estimates, the cost of domestic violence to the economy is £1.9bn a year. In the US, the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence quotes research from 2004 putting the figure at $8.3bn, with more than 7.9m paid workdays lost each year.
The financial impact includes lower productivity, lost wages and even lost jobs as a result of absenteeism or lateness, as well as increased claims against company insurance and higher premiums. Some 21 per cent of women take time off work as a direct result of abuse, according to a UK Home Office study. For nearly a quarter of those, the longest absence was more than a week.
An employer “may not know why one employee gets rattled answering the phone 25 times a day, or another comes in early and stays late”, says Ms Morbeck.
Domestic abuse can affect anyone, she adds. “Women who are senior executives are more likely to keep abuse quiet because they are fearful an employer will think they cannot make decisions or do their work.”
She is living proof, she argues, of how employers can play a vital role in assisting those experiencing domestic abuse. “I work with employers because it was my employer who worked with me,” she says, of escaping an abusive husband and rebuilding her life.
For Lorna Gavin, head of diversity, inclusion and corporate responsibility at London law firm Gowling WLG, the statistics were a turning point. The firm had been involved in tackling domestic violence through community outreach work, but had no programme of its own — “which seems crazy now”, she says.
Statistically, it was possible “dozens of people in my firm were being affected by domestic violence. I thought, how can we stand by and do nothing? Even if the behaviours are happening at home, people come into work carrying the weight of what they’re going through.”
Gowling trained selected staff members from HR and throughout the company in how to identify and support victims of domestic violence. It set up an online resource centre for those who felt uncomfortable coming forward in person.
Gowling’s most effective initiative, say Ms Gavin, was the simple act of putting information posters on the back of toilet cubicle doors. The posters varied in content, theme and presentation to help readers identify an abusive relationship, or to seek help for themselves or a friend. As a result, several employees came forward to disclose their struggles with domestic abuse.
“People might not want to talk about it,” says Ms Morbeck, but it is vital for employers to provide tools for employees, such as pamphlets, intranet materials or posters, she adds. While companies “should refer employees to a specialist who can help, they also need a plan, a policy in place and a corporate response mechanism”.
Three quarters of employees say they would like workplace support to address domestic abuse, but only 30 per cent of companies have a plan in place, according to the UK Corporate Alliance.
While nearly 80 per cent of people in the UK consider domestic violence to be a widespread problem nationally, 39 per cent still think it is an inappropriate topic to discuss in the workplace, the Corporate Alliance says.
In the US, for Diana, the unconditional support from her employer made all the difference, she says. “I don’t think I’d have given up, but I wouldn’t be as successful as I am almost four years later.”
* Name has been changed