How can workplaces support staff who experience domestic violence behind closed and locked doors?

For many of us, after the government ordered us to “stay home”, we felt disgruntled, but we understood the importance of doing so. However, those same words sent chills down the spines of many people. For them, their homes are the least safe places on Earth.

Every single day in Australia a woman is killed by a violent partner. One in six girls and one in nine boys have experience physical or sexual abuse before 15 yoa, with parents being the most common perpetrators. These were the statistics from before our nation was shut down due to COVID-19.

And while women and children are disproportionately represented in the total number of family and domestic violence deaths in this country, it’s important to acknowledge the one is 13 men who experience domestic violence from an intimate partner and the one man each month who loses his life as a result.

Now that we’re all being called upon to stay inside our homes for a long but indeterminate period of time the numbers of people affected by family and domestic violence are likely to grow. We’re already seeing spikes in the number of cases due to government imposed isolation.

COVID-19 is making abuse more common
Since the beginning of the pandemic reports of financial, emotional and physical abuse have increased. Troublingly, perpetrators are using the spectre of the virus itself as a tool.

The Australian government is taking this issue seriously. It has announced a $150M package to bolster frontline services, technology-based support methods, safer housing, counselling services and crisis support.

A global problem
Like the virus itself, this is impacting people all over the world.

In China, where the virus originated, it’s reported that one domestic violence abuse hotline experienced more than three times as many calls in February 2020 than it had in February 2019. 

In Spain the emergency number for domestic violence received 18 per cent more calls in the first two weeks of lockdown compared to the previous month.

It also reported that French police have recorded about a 30 per cent increase in domestic violence across the nation.

In the UK, the largest domestic abuse charity has received a 25% increase in calls to its helpline since isolation came into force.

Last week, United Nations secretary general António Guterres urged global leaders to put domestic violence on their radars when planning for COVID-19 impacts. Workplaces should do the same. “Violence is not confined to the battlefields,” he said. “For many women and girls, the threat is largest where they should be safest: in their own homes.”

What should workplaces be doing?
First and foremost, employers, HR and managers can learn the common signs of family and domestic violence. That can be much harder to determine in a virtual workplace, but there are various signs you should look for:

Signs of physical harm palmed off as ‘accidents’, such as bruises, broken bones and scarring. In a virtual world, if an employee is suddenly hesitant to use video chat functions, it might be worth reaching out by other means to find out why.
Inappropriate clothing for season. Turtlenecks in hot weather, for example.
Constantly arriving late/calling in sick.
A change in job performance, such as more errors, slowness, or inconsistent quality of work.
They seem anxious, or afraid of, or overly eager to please their partner.
The person stops calls when a partner enters the room.
They cancel plans at the last minute.
Their partner seems overly attentive and often appears by their side.
The individual appears to be more depressed, frightened, exhausted or quiet than usual, or has lost their confidence.
Person says their partner wants them to leave their job.
They seem to lack access to money.
They demonstrate a reluctance to leave work.
Their partner is publicly ridiculing them, for example on social media.

Employers also need to have the right resources and support services available to pass onto affected staff members. Have this information ready to go; don’t wait for someone to speak up. Of course, if you’re worried for the safety of an employee, call emergency services immediately.

Support someone in an abusive relationship
Believe them and make sure they understand it’s not their fault
Listen without judgement
Be supportive, encouraging and open
Offer them help from a support service.
Keep in touch with them regularly
Encourage them to keep a written record of the events (and to keep the record hidden in a safe place)
Encourage them to make a safety plan, including emergency contacts and a hidden suitcase with money, clothes, Centrelink cards, and other important documents.
If you call a staff member with a potential or confirmed experience of violence and a partner answers the phone, don’t tell them you are calling about family violence. Even if the individual answers the phone themselves, start by asking if they’re in a safe environment to talk in a way that allows them to answer with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. 
In the workplace “a zero-tolerance policy, guaranteed confidentiality and non-judgemental attitudes are the best ways to make employees comfortable with discussing this issue.” 
HR’s role is also to encourage other employees to be active bystanders in order to remove the shame many survivors feel about their situation. They can do this by encouraging people to ask each other, “Are you okay?”

Employers are not there to solve domestic violence but if you have early intervention and an open-door policy, you can then point employees in the right direction.

If you’re in a position where you need support contact EAP Assist.