Employers are waking up to the domestic abuse crisis affecting many of their people, and recognising that home working has created new avenues for abuse.
We’ve moved past the days of employee wellbeing fitting neatly into boxes of mental, physical and financial wellbeing. Largely down to the pandemic, there is more of an understanding of how life events or experiences, impact wellbeing. This attitude is shining a new light on workers facing domestic abuse, and the role of workplaces in supporting victim-survivors.
“If any of my colleagues knew, I would be mortified”
Our helpline takes enquiries from people of all genders, in the banking community, who are looking for support for their health and wellbeing. Unsurprisingly, some of these calls involve domestic abuse.
At times, callers confide in us that they can’t imagine any of their co-workers knowing that they are subject to abuse. Some feel they have a reputation for being a strong character, or they hold positions of power in the business, and so they are fearful that their colleagues might not believe them, or that they will start seeing and treating them differently. Sometimes, there is even a sense of shame stemming from the belief that they ‘allowed’ it to happen.
To raise awareness of this issue, in 2017 we wrote a blog about organisations beginning to tackle domestic abuse. Today, it seems there is still a long way to go, with 40% of British workers surveyed, saying that they would not know how to help a colleague experiencing domestic abuse.
Additionally, with employees spending a lot more time home working, new opportunities have been created for a perpetrator to interfere with someone’s ability to work – which is economic abuse.
The dark side of working from home
We now understand what economic abuse is, largely down to the campaigning of Surviving Economic Abuse (SEA), over the last few years. Economic abuse is more than financial abuse, it is the control of a person’s economic resources, like transport and food, through restriction, exploitation and sabotage.
For example, an abuser may interfere with a person’s ability to work by not allowing them access to their work laptop, refusing to help with childcare or being purposefully disruptive in their home working space. Our helpline has certainly taken calls from employees who could not afford the cost of transport to work, as a direct result of economic abuse, and were worried about losing their job.
Perhaps this type of abuse is not what comes to mind when we think of domestic abuse, but nonetheless it is prevalent and devastating. Almost half of victim-survivors interviewed last year by the SEA, reported that the perpetrator had interfered with their ability to work or study, during the outbreak. More worrying still, the research shows that there is a link between economic and physical abuse.
It’s a tricky predicament for organisations to respond to. If staff are working from home, how do they ‘see’ that a colleague needs support? If they do recognise somebody needs help, how do they reach them at home safely?
Bringing the message home
To tackle the issue, HR and wellbeing teams have got creative with their comms. Alongside specific campaigns about domestic abuse, they have been weaving in key messaging into all email communications. For instance general wellbeing newsletters, are sent with a link to information on support for abuse, as a standard approach.
At the same time, many companies are training their line managers to broach the subject of how things are at home, when they see signs of a change in behaviour or productivity in a team member. The idea is to create secure spaces for employees, so they can disclose the abuse if they want to, and for managers to feel fully equipped to react appropriately, and support their staff.
A number of companies have even got innovative with their virtual meetings. They have designated one of the Teams or Zoom reactions internally, to be a signal that it isn’t safe to talk, or to be used to indicate they cannot talk freely. Managers or colleagues can then follow up with the individual, using different communication methods, fully aware that there is a safety issue. The added bonus being, that sometimes a button is much easier to press to ask for help, than to say the words out loud.
A crisis in a pandemic
Domestic abuse rates spiked with COVID-19 and it became a crisis within a crisis. One of the employers who stepped up their support for staff was Lloyds Banking Group. In 2020 they launched their Emergency Assistance Programme which gives line managers the ability to grant leave, and cover the cost of an emergency hotel, amongst their pre-existing support.
By having internal support available, such as this, employees are also re-assured that they will be believed and not judged.
When the message from the business, consistently and repeatedly is – we will support you no matter what – it gives courage to people, at all levels of the organisation, to get help. Post pandemic, let there be no more suffering in silence, whether physically in the office or not.
What can employers do?
Be led by what the employee wants – it’s natural to want someone to leave an abusive relationship, because we think it will stop the abuse. However, for a variety of reasons, the employee may not be willing to leave the relationship. Accept this, and support your people with no judgement. Do continue to check back in with the person, so you can offer relevant support as their needs and situation change.
Know who you can refer your people to – maintain an easy to access list of domestic abuse services, so anyone can find and contact the specialist service appropriate to them.
Introduce domestic abuse champions – the first reaction a person gets when they talk about their abuse, will have repercussions for how they recover from the trauma, and how they engage in support. Having specifically trained champions encourages conversation, and makes a compassionate response much more likely.
Create an internal domestic abuse policy and provide training – together they will make it easier for line managers to know how to respond, and support their employees, in what they themselves may find a distressing situation to handle.
The Bank Workers Charity website contains a range of material and interactive tools to support wellbeing.