Why firms should introduce paid leave for domestic violence victims

When Covid hit, calls to national helplines rocketed, and employers must step up to better protect their staff amid the ‘pandemic within a pandemic’, argues Alannah Clark Horne

When Covid increased its global grip, cases of domestic violence rose dramatically worldwide. In the UK, for example, Refuge received more than 13,000 monthly calls and messages to its National Domestic Abuse helpline between April 2020 and February 2021 – a 60 per cent higher rate than usual. Sadly, the UK is not alone.

This problem has been described as ‘a pandemic within a pandemic’, and many countries have been quick to respond. By September 2020, 121 nations had adopted measures to strengthen services for female survivors of violence. However, surprisingly few countries, including the UK, have recognised the need to extend this support within a workplace context. And it’s time this situation changed.

As University of Queensland academic Paul Harpur noted in 2016: “It’s hard to leave an abusive relationship if you don’t have an income.” The more you consider the case for paid domestic violence leave, the more it makes sense for both victims and employers. Most victims can’t progress their lives unless they can escape their damaging domestic situation and they shouldn’t have to use up holiday allowance or take recorded sick days to do so.

We’ve all moved house, and understand how stressful it can be, let alone when you’re under duress. It’s appropriate that support should be offered to victims to help them take this step. And moving out is unlikely to spell the end of their ordeal. Legal proceedings may be required, alongside physical or psychological assistance.

From a workplace perspective, it’s obvious that employees subjected to this strain will not perform at their peak. The impact of domestic violence on the workplace is an under-researched field, but older evidence from 2004 paints an alarming picture of victims missing work, taking extended time off, or being physically restrained from attending work by their abusers.

The data may not be forthcoming, but it seems plausible that the cost of domestic violence for employers will be higher than the cost of providing domestic violence leave.

Workplace measures so far

In 2021, the UK government called on employers to ensure that their organisation is spotting signs of domestic abuse and helping their staff find the right support. Yet there is currently no specific UK legislation outlining clear-cut employer obligations. By contrast, New Zealand and the Philippines each offer 10 days’ paid domestic abuse leave.

Thankfully, some UK employers are following suit. While domestic violence leave might still be under consultation at a policy level, organisations such as Vodafone, Linklaters and Lloyd’s Banking Group are taking their own initiative and making provisions part of their workplace benefits.

What UK-based global employers can do

Any UK business that employs people overseas needs to pay attention to the location-specific benefits and workplace protections afforded to workers in each territory. In the case of domestic violence provisions, failure to provide benefits that employees are entitled to by local law could result in legal or reputational damage.

Equally, employers need to understand the relevant cultural norms and trends in each market – if other local businesses are offering domestic violence leave as standard, they risk being left behind should they fail to follow suit.

So instead of keeping to the countries where domestic violence leave is mandated, why not extend it to every location you have people in? If you’re leading a global company that sees itself as an employee-first organisation, now may be the time to offer domestic violence leave to your entire workforce. 

This will have the added advantage of encouraging employers who do not even have employees in countries where domestic violence leave is mandated to go the extra mile to be progressive and introduce it. In our view, there is no need to hang around and wait to place an employee in a country where the leave is compulsory. Being proactive is what will help businesses to get ahead, while providing what could be a vital lifeline for members of their workforce.

We don’t know where Covid will lead us next; the situation looks different from one part of the world to another. But so long as future lockdowns remain a possibility, we cannot rule out a further spike in domestic violence. Employers have a responsibility to protect the wellbeing and safety of their teams, and with more people than ever before working from home, it makes sense to have policies in place to guarantee a safe home-working environment.

Furthermore, all over the world, the trauma of domestic violence is being carried into the workplace every day by victims unable to escape their situations. We may not be in a lockdown now, but it’s the right moment to instate better protection for these employees.

Alannah Clarke Horne is global HR manager at Boundless