Is domestic violence a workplace issue?

Effective responses in the workplace to domestic abuse is still lacking, as a significant number of HR managers and senior leaders see this as a personal issue.

Despite the latest Office for National Statistics figures on domestic violence, which estimate that almost two million UK adults have experienced some sort domestic abuse in the last year, only one in 20 medium and large UK organisations have a specific policy or guideline to cover domestic abuse among their workforce.

Research conducted by Durham University Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse and Ipsos MORI, was launched in London at the first conference to be held by the Employers’ Initiative on Domestic Abuse (EIDA). The findings were illuminating. Three in four HR leads in medium and large UK businesses surveyed agree companies can empower victims by giving them guidance on how to deal with domestic abuse and only 9 per cent agree it is a personal matter and not appropriate for employees to raise with their employers.

Yet, the research reveals there is a perception that at a senior level within organisations it is not seen as an issue that affects their employees. Just 20 per cent tend to agree it is an issue that is on the agenda for HR policymakers.

Despite the high levels of abuse the ONS figures reveal, the research found there was an average of only 0.5 disclosures of domestic abuse per medium and larger UK organisation in the last 12 months.

“Over the last few decades we’ve seen lots of improvements in responses to domestic abuse. But effective responses in the workplace are lacking. The time has now come for more workplaces to step up and join the movement to end domestic abuse,” Professor Nicole Westmarland, director at the Durham University Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse, says.

One organisation the report cites which is actively engaged in helping with the issue is EIDA member Gentoo, a housing organisation in the North East of England. It takes a proactive approach to domestic abuse in terms of its customers and employees. It has a dedicated domestic abuse business manager, provides a free legal clinic for staff (accessed by over 70 people since 2015), provides access to a domestic violence perpetrator programme for staff and its clients, allows paid leave to attend the perpetrator programme and the Freedom programme for victim-survivors, or to attend court or other appointments. It has 25 trained domestic and sexual violence champions. All managers attended a mandatory ‘Justice for Jane’ session while an employee leaflet recognises that: “For some staff, the workplace is a safe haven and the only place that offers a route to safety.”

“Despite 86 per cent of HR leads agreeing that employers have a duty of care to provide support to employees on the issue of domestic abuse, it is clear from the research that domestic abuse appears to sit outside organisations’ more commonly developed set of ‘duty of care’ policies and guidelines,” says Elizabeth Filkin CBE, who chairs the EIDA steering group.

But in those companies which believe domestic abuse has had an impact in their organisation in the past 12 months, 58 per cent say an employee’s productivity has declined, 56 per cent that it has caused absenteeism and 46 per cent that it had an impact on other colleagues’ productivity. A quarter of these organisations believe that harassment or abuse has occurred at the workplace.

“Given the cost of domestic abuse to business at a time when the UK’s productivity is falling, it is more important than ever that employers do more to tackle the issue, which is why the EIDA came into existence.”

The new research comes as the government consults on the scope and content of a new ‘landmark’ Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill, announced in the Queen’s Speech in June 2017 and which includes the establishment of a Domestic Violence and Abuse Commissioner.

The Home Secretary has stated that tackling domestic abuse “requires a multi-pronged approach which includes legislation, a concerted police response and a culture shift across agencies and within our communities”. This provides the opportunity to emphasise the role of employers, and the importance of the employee-employer relationship, in helping to support those experiencing domestic abuse and engage in prevention activities.

The research report offers nine recommendations.

  1. Introduce a new provision in the Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill which amends the current law so that there is no minimum qualifying period before being able to ask for flexible working for those experiencing domestic abuse; and those experiencing domestic abuse may make more than one application for flexible working in each year.
  2. The Government should introduce a minimum entitlement of 10 days’ paid leave in any year to an employee experiencing domestic abuse within the Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill.
  3. The statutory guidelines on Personal, Social, Health and Economic education (PSHE) should include mandatory education on domestic abuse and its effects.
  4. Ensure the role of the new Commissioner extends to reviewing and monitoring employer action, including in the private sector.
  5. A UK National Resource Centre should be established to consolidate and share best practice.
  6. A national campaign should be developed to raise awareness of domestic abuse in the workplace and signpost to local support.
  7. Greater consideration, training, and awareness raising is needed in the UK around health and safety responsibilities in relation to domestic abuse, including risk assessments of perpetrators.
  8. Given the central role of employee assistance programmes (EAPs) to some organisations, greater partnership working needs to take place.
  9. Researchers should move beyond ‘making the case’ and seek funding for longitudinal work in partnership with organisations to develop the ‘what works’ literature in this field.

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for from 2016 to 2018.