Domestic abuse victims should be given extra paid leave, says CIPD

Experts warn many survivors ‘fear losing their jobs’, with one in five having to take time off 

Staff suffering domestic abuse should be given 10 days’ paid leave, the CIPD has said, as it releases new guidance to help employers support their workforces.

The guidance, developed by the CIPD and the Equality and Human Rights Committee (EHRC), also called on employers to take an “an empathetic, non-judgemental approach” and provide flexibility for employees suffering domestic abuse.

It said businesses should “believe an employee if they disclose experiencing domestic abuse”, and cautioned: “Do not ask for proof.” It also warned companies not to attempt to “solve the problem” or act as counsellors, but rather signpost staff to professional support.

HR teams “should take central responsibility for developing a policy and procedures on domestic abuse and facilitating awareness-raising training”, the guidance stated.

The guidance was released amid concerns that lockdown measures have led to a surge in the number of men and women subjected to physical and mental abuse from their partners.

Claire McCartney, senior resourcing and inclusion policy adviser at the CIPD, said there was evidence incidences of domestic abuse had increased as a result of the pandemic and many more people working from home. “It’s important that employers are knowledgeable about this issue as they are ideally placed to offer a lifeline to those experiencing it,” she said.

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“The workplace can often be one of the few places that a person experiencing abuse can be separate from their abuser, and therefore the place where people are able to ask for and access support,” said McCartney.

Some 2.4 million adults in England and Wales suffer domestic abuse every year, with a series of reports showing a steep rise in cases during lockdown. During the first seven weeks of lockdown, police received a report of domestic abuse every 30 seconds, according to an investigation by BBC1’s Panorama and Women's Aid last month.

Similarly in May this year, the National Domestic Abuse Helpline, run by Refuge, saw calls rise by 66 per cent, with visits to its website up by 950 per cent compared to pre-lockdown levels.

Caroline Waters, interim chair of the EHRC, confirmed there had been a “dramatic increase in calls to domestic abuse hotlines” during Covid. “We know that many are struggling. Supporting staff should be at the forefront of any employers’ efforts to adapt to current and future ways of working, and offering support for people who are experiencing domestic abuse needs to be a part of that thinking,” she said.

The guidance said companies needed to be more proactive in dealing with the problem, noting that fewer than one in four (24 per cent) employees were aware of their employer having a policy or support in place on domestic abuse.

It recommended businesses have a well-publicised policy and framework of support in place, suggesting that “a good practice workplace policy on domestic abuse would include a domestic abuse workplace risk assessment and safety planning as an integral part of occupational safety and health within organisations”.

Firms should also create “open work cultures” to encourage people to talk about domestic abuse, and “enable their employees to access professional support, whether that be legal advice, financial advice, housing support, counselling or arranging childcare”, it said.

However, the guidance also warned employers to be careful when raising issues with staff working from home, as an abuser might be monitoring the employee’s email or other methods of communication. “Even asking open questions in an email, or in a call when it’s not known who else is listening, might ring alarm bells with the abuser and cause more abuse,” it said.

The guidance advised employers to agree code words or hand signals their employees could use to show if they were in danger.

The CIPD’s call for paid leave for domestic abuse victims was echoed by Lucy Hadley, campaigns and policy manager at Women's Aid. She said around one in five survivors of domestic abuse in the UK have to take time off work because of the abuse. “Many survivors tell us they fear losing their job and have to navigate stressful workplace situations,” she said.

“As well as ensuring that all employers have clear workplace policies and support in place for women experiencing domestic abuse, we are calling for the UK to follow the example of other countries and offer flexible working arrangements and paid leave for survivors.” 

Responding to the new guidance, Paul Quinlan, head of employee relations at EY, told People Management that while domestic abuse had a significant impact on those affected, the stigma surrounding the issue meant it often remained largely hidden in the workplace. “In the current remote working environment it can be even more challenging for those impacted to speak up and for colleagues to spot the signs,” he said.

Quinlan said EY’s approach included signposting staff to resources available as part of its health and wellbeing approach, providing accredited training to help identify colleagues who may need support, and giving staff access to an independent domestic violence advocate.

Employers must remember their duty of care to create a safe environment for their employees, added Louise Aston, wellbeing director at Business in the Community. “It can be hard for businesses to recognise their role in this, but I find it helps for employers to think about support for victims of domestic abuse as part of their broader wellbeing strategy rather than something that exists in a vacuum,” said Aston.

The guidance from the CIPD and EHRC was welcomed by Joe Levenson, director of communications and campaigns at the Young Women’s Trust, who described it as “a step in the right direction”.

He added: “Employers must take responsibility for building respectful workplaces with proactive policies to prevent sexual harassment and support those experiencing domestic abuse and other forms of violence by providing paid time off and access to specialist services.”

A government review into the employment rights of domestic abuse victims, launched in June, is currently exploring what more can be done to support them in the workplace.