Why employers play a critical role in lifting the lid on domestic abuse

Lockdown has caused a jump in reports of abusive or controlling behaviour, says Paul Scully – but organisations can help tackle it

The nationwide lockdown that began in March led to a dramatic major increase in domestic abuse incidents, as survivors were forced to stay indoors with their abusers. For some, working from home can be the antithesis of flexible working. Many people working from home for the first time have felt the pressure of living on top of others in their household day in and day out.

Those in an emotionally abusive, coercive or controlling relationship suffered the agony of being locked in a house with the person they feared the most; something hard for many of us to imagine.

It is thought that, globally, domestic abuse cases have escalated by 20 per cent in the past six months or so. In the UK, more than a third of specialist domestic abuse services have reported an increase in requests for support over lockdown.

We as a government are committed to doing everything in our power to support all of those suffering domestic abuse, in various kinds of relationships. The government has already announced £22m in increased funding for support services for survivors. But we want to go further.

As business minister, I am particularly interested in what we can be doing with businesses up and down the country to try and tackle all forms of domestic abuse. Employers are perfectly placed to help lift the lid on this often hidden and always hideous crime.

While domestic abuse may occur in the home, its impact stretches into every aspect of survivors’ lives – including their working life. As many as one in five survivors may need to take time off work because of abuse.

Charity Hestia, which supports vulnerable people, has launched the Everyone's Business helpline – a specialist service funded by the Home Office that provides a point of contact for employers to help them recognise and support domestic abuse survivors in the workplace.

In June my department launched a review of workplace support for survivors of domestic abuse. Having a job and spending time away from perpetrators can offer a degree of independence and financial self-sufficiency, which is so important for those suffering abuse. Their workplace provides them with a network outside of the home that they can draw on for support and can be one of the few places many survivors feel safe to speak out about what they are going through.

Many employers across the UK are already doing a great deal to support survivors, ensuring they can report abuse and receive the help they need from their place of work. However, there is clearly much more work to do to make this the norm, as a recent survey found that more than three-quarters (76 per cent) of employees are unaware of employers’ support measures.

We want to ensure this support becomes standard practice across the board, and senior managers and HR professionals have a huge role to play in ensuring that support is available and utilised across every workplace and is seen as a natural investment in support for colleagues, regardless of the size of company or scale of HR resource.

The government’s domestic abuse review looks at what reasonable, effective new measures could be put in place in the workplace by the government or employers to help those experiencing domestic abuse. The review began with a consultation, where we asked for the views of businesses, trade unions and charities and organisations with expertise in domestic abuse to better understand what measures are already in place and what more could be done.

Going forward, the review will look at ways to tackle issues such as availability of flexible working and unplanned leave for survivors, who often need the flexibility to deal with issues arising from domestic abuse, such as attending court hearings or medical appointments. It will also explore how workplaces themselves can change working processes and team culture to better support survivors, and ensure they feel comfortable speaking out.

The consultation has now closed, but that doesn’t mean the conversation has to stop. Last month, Home Office minister Victoria Atkins and I co-chaired a roundtable with key voices on this debate, including domestic abuse support charities, employers’ bodies, trade unions and both the domestic abuse and victims commissioners. As we reflect on the views gathered, we want to maintain momentum and encourage all companies to look around, draw on the fantastic work being done by other businesses, and think about what more they can do to help employees affected by domestic abuse in their workplace.

Addressing something like domestic abuse can seem daunting for work colleagues. Just reaching out to people who are having difficulties can feel unsettling, with the fear of doing the wrong thing, stepping into an area for which they feel ill-equipped or crossing a line. Reaching out to someone in a possibly abusive relationship can feel on another scale entirely. That is why we are keen to showcase existing examples of great practice and how to signpost effectively.

The CIPD and Equality and Human Rights Commission have produced excellent guidance for employers to draw upon in the first instance, but it is also vital that businesses look to what other employers are doing. In Northumbria, the Workplace Domestic Violence Champion scheme has seen around 400 public and private employers sign up to nominate employee ‘champions’ in their team, whom other employees can easily go to if they feel uncomfortable talking about it directly to their manager or employer. 

It is this kind of innovative, employer-led intervention that our review aims to draw on and promote. We want to pioneer schemes like this in every workplace in the UK. To help us reach that goal, we need buy-in at every level of companies, but particularly at the top, and in employee-facing teams: the people who have the power and expertise to shape the culture of their workplace. As senior business and HR leaders, I urge you to ask yourself what more your organisation can do to support domestic abuse survivors.

Clearly we do not want or expect employers and HR professionals to worry about becoming experts on emotional abuse, coercive control or manipulation. We want colleagues to have the confidence to recognise and signpost professional support, giving the appropriate space to those suffering while keeping that crucial support network outside their home. Britain’s workplaces have the potential to be a lifeline for those facing an unimaginable ordeal.

With support from all levels of business, we will build gold-standard employment practices that will ensure that all domestic abuse survivors have access to the support they need at work.

Paul Scully MP is minister for small business at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy