Employers are vital ‘bridges to safety’ for those experiencing domestic abuse

Beckett Frith
Beckett Frith

Senior Content Officer, Mental Health at Work

Our mental wellbeing is complex and affected by all parts of our lives. Domestic abuse, whether from an intimate partner or a family member, can be devastating – but there are steps employers can take to support those experiencing it. Beckett Frith asks three experts for their advice on building and sharing a domestic abuse policy.

If you work for a medium-sized employer, it’s likely that one of your colleagues is victim of domestic abuse.

This isn’t an exaggeration.  Shockingly, 25% of women and 17% of men are victims of domestic abuse at some point in their lifetimes, and 19% of non-binary people have experienced it within the past year. It’s believed that the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown has worsened these already dismal statistics, with calls to domestic helplines surging while we have been working from home and going out less.

Domestic abuse doesn’t affect one part of your life, but all parts.

And we know domestic abuse can have a devastating effect on the mental health of victims, leaving them feeling anxious, depressed and alone. Lyndsay Dearlove is the Head of UK Says No More, a campaign run by Hestia aiming to raise awareness of domestic abuse and sexual violence. She says that while the impact varies from person to person, the link to mental wellbeing is intrinsic.

“Domestic abuse doesn’t affect one part of your life, but all parts,” she explains. “If someone is living in a constant state of terror, being told everything is their fault, having unrealistic expectations put on them and so on, then it’s impossible to have positive mental health.”

She adds that the secretive nature of this abuse compounds the problem. “Often victims will portray a sense of wellbeing to everyone around them. It’s common for people to downplay the abuse because of shame.”

A woman sits alone.

While this may seem bleak, there are ways employers can help those in their organisations experiencing domestic abuse. The City Mental Health Alliance City Mental Health Alliance City Mental Health Alliance focuses on supporting all City workers to achieve their full potential. View organisation (CMHA) released a guide​Domestic abuse: how employers can provide support during the COVID-19 pandemic PDF Domestic abuse can affect people from any walk of life, and comes in many different forms. This PDF guide from the City Mental Health Alliance covers the facts about domestic abuse and suggests some ways employers might help those affected.Free By: City Mental Health Alliance View resource earlier this year with information and advice for those organisations looking for ways to help. Farimah Darbyshire, Lead on External Communications and Early Careers Healthy Programme at CMHA, says one key factor is understanding how to start a conversation with someone you are concerned about.

“One approach is to ask simple questions and then leave space for your colleague to answer,” she suggests. “For example – ‘How is everything at home with you?’ or ‘Your wellbeing is important to me and I have noticed you seem distracted/upset at the moment – are you okay?’”.

Employers should include a domestic abuse policy for employees.

A comprehensive domestic abuse policy can also help your organisation to know how to respond if someone discloses​Conversations about painful subjects Web page Trauma can overwhelm someone's ability to cope. This guide is designed to help NHS line managers encourage their staff open up about potentially traumatic things they have seen at work.Free By: NHS England and NHS Improvement View resource an abusive home situation. “Employers should include a domestic abuse policy for employees as part of their wider mental health and wellbeing support,” says Farimah. “This can be relatively simple, but it will put a structure around the support that you offer and make it clear that this is a priority for your organisation.”

Some example measures in a policy might include offering a set period of paid leave for anyone who is affected, interest free loans to help people escape financially abusive situations, and options for victims to access a range of external support. This may be through an EAP​Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) – Supporting good work for UK employers? PDF This report, published by The Work Foundation in association with the Employee Assistance Professionals Association, explains how Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) can be used by employers to seek help on both work and non-work related issues. Free By: The Work Foundation View resource, staff networks or support and advice lines.

Lyndsey adds that ensuring people are aware of this policy is crucial. “Discuss it everywhere – on your intranet, on the back of toilet doors, talk about it in team meetings. The more you normalise it, the more people will feel safe to come forward.”

Colleagues share a heart-to-heart.

While this may seem a daunting task, the results can be incredible. Saranya Kogulathas is the Domestic Abuse Housing Alliance (DAHA) Development Manager for London at Standing Together Against Domestic Violence, an organisation which aims to bring communities together to end domestic abuse. She says that some organisations they have worked with have gone from having zero domestic abuse reporting to having a rise in reporting numbers every month.

But she adds that the coronavirus lockdown​Coronavirus and your wellbeing Web page This short guide from Mind explores some of the worries and difficulties you might experience due to the coronavirus pandemic, and some ways to ensure your mental health is protected.Free By: Mind View resource has meant employers have had to change their approach. “Organisations have increased publicity of domestic abuse services and support through both digital and postal communications as a result [of the changes in the workplace],” she says. “Some providers have given staff a means to communicate using alert comms devices, which are traditionally used by repairs, contractors or any estates staff to alert staff they are not safe.” Some organisations have established ‘safe words’ they can use when contacting someone they are worried about to ensure victims and the conversations they may be having are kept secure.

It’s crucial you put the safety of the victim at the forefront.

Saranya suggests that one of the most effective strategies is ensuring you adapt on a case-by-case basis. “Every survivor is different, and so each experience they have will be very different,” she explains. “It is important for employers to understand this and not have a one-size-fits-all approach, and therefore it is important to publicise a range of diverse services, catering to individuals of all backgrounds. Specialist services who specifically support diverse groups have expertise that generic services may not have, and can make survivors feel more comfortable.”

It’s also important to think about another other aspect of domestic abuse – there’s a high chance you have a perpetrator working alongside you. “Domestic abuse exists all around us,” says Lyndsey. “But it’s crucial you put the safety of the victim at the forefront. At no point in the history of time has an abuser stopped simply because someone has asked them to.”

Instead, Saranya advises organisations signpost staff that may be abusers to Respect, an organisation which aims to work safely and effectively with perpetrators, as well as ensuring you include relevant perpetrator management within your domestic abuse policy.

An employee discloses an issue to their employer.

However, while this is undoubtably a difficult subject, don’t feel overwhelmed. Lyndsey explains that while an organisation’s role can be important, you shouldn’t be providing every service yourself. “You don’t need to become a case worker, or the police, or a refuge [when supporting those experiencing domestic abuse],” she says. “You just need to be a bridge that can help take people to those services.

“An abuser’s number one goal is to break down as many of their victim’s bridges to safety as possible. If you as an organisation can provide that bridge, you can make a huge difference.”

If you’ve been affected by the issues raised in this article, there are several organisations that might be able to offer you support.

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