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Domestic abuse and support in the workplace – what needs to change?

Photo shows two office women sitting across from each other on a small round table and having a relaxed conversation. They're sitting next to a window in an office building.

Support in the workplace is critical for women experiencing domestic abuse, and for some it can be a lifeline. This is especially pertinent at the moment when the COVID-19 pandemic means most employees are now working from home. For those living with abusive partners, they might now find themselves trapped with their abuser for significant periods of time and may find it more difficult to reach out for advice and support.

Moreover, domestic abuse can exacerbate the economic and labour market inequalities that women already face. When an unsafe or unsupportive workplace leads a woman to leave the employment, there not only is a direct impact on her economic independence and career, but for some the risk of falling into poverty increases. And in a society where women already experience barriers to employment, the likelihood of precarious and unstable work, and increased risk of poverty, it is crucial that they do not have to choose between safety and earning an income.

Although having a workplace domestic abuse policy is a start, it is not the all-end solution. Recently, the UK Government asked for views on how to improve support in the workplace for survivors of domestic abuse, and we, along with the women we support, have responded to this consultation. In this blog we discuss some of our concerns and our main recommendations.

What support exists (or not) in the workplace?

In writing our response, we asked for the views of three women who had experienced domestic abuse and then reported this to their employers. It emerged that there was a lack of consistency between the responses of their employers —each woman received varying levels of support. Alongside the inconsistencies, their experiences raised the following issues:

  • Barriers to disclosure: one of the key concerns is the mechanisms that employers put in place (or not) to give women the confidence to safely disclose the abuse. One of the women we supported mentioned that the prospect of disclosing the abuse to Human Resources or to an unknown member of staff can be daunting, something that, in turn, can affect the survivor’s ability or decision to disclose.
  • Lack of domestic abuse training: when victims/survivors decide to disclose, they often do so to a manager. However, often managers are not equipped to handle the disclosure. Deciding to talk about the abuse can be an incredibly difficult step that should never be taken lightly. And a poor response can leave the survivor feeling like she wasn’t believed or that her concerns were not taken seriously.
  • Security measures: security measures put in place by an employer can make a huge difference in making the victim/survivor feel supported, safe and able to continue her work. For example, one of the women we spoke to said that her employer created a commuting plan so she could feel safe in her journey into work.
  • Practical support: the women we have supported highlighted that employers don’t understand the practical implications of living with domestic abuse. For example, a person may need extra time off in order to attend court or to access support services.

The changes we want to see

When survivors feel supported and listened to, they are in a better position to make decisions about their situation and plan next steps. We believe that the recommendations we have made can contribute to creating the supportive workplaces that women with experiences of domestic abuse need:

  • Workplace legislation must be implemented: this will place obligations upon employers to have policies and procedures in place to handle disclosures of domestic abuse and support survivors. In addition, any changes in legislation need to be published alongside guidance written with input from specialist agencies. This way, when a person discloses domestic abuse, employers and colleagues will have the tools to respond in a sensitive manner.
  • The Scottish Government should issue recommendations and encourage best practice: following the lead of a scheme in Northumbria, private employers should have nominated, trained domestic abuse ‘employee champions’ that other employees can easily disclose abuse to. In Scotland the Equally Safe at Work toolkit (developed by Close the Gap) is already a starting point. The toolkit includes guidance on how to identify abuse/violence, responding to disclosures, how to facilitate a conversation, safety considerations, signposting to support services and managing perpetrators of abuse.
  • Implementing a ‘safe leave’ policy: although some employers who provide compassionate leave expect employees to use this to cover domestic abuse, in many cases compassionate leave is discretionary and not all employees will know that they can use when they are experiencing domestic abuse. Workplace legislation should explicitly give employees the right to take a set period of paid ‘safe leave’, as already implemented by North Ayrshire Council. This would allow survivors to have time off when they are experiencing domestic abuse or they are living through the aftermath of such a relationship.
  • Funding: there should be funding available to small employers and sole traders to cover the costs of domestic abuse training and paid leave for employees living with abuse.

When a woman experiences abuse, the impact can reach all areas of her life, including the workplace. This is why it is essential that workplaces have a consistent and effective approach to supporting employees who are living with abuse. We believe this can be achieved through legislation written for that purpose, and our hope is that our recommendations are a step in the right direction.

You can read our consultation response here.

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