Last month business minister Paul Scully urged all UK employers to do more to help colleagues who are victims of domestic abuse. His call to action on 14 January came as figures revealed that incidents of domestic abuse spiked in 2020 to 2.4 million. While 2020 was a difficult year for various reasons, the pandemic forced many employees to work from home, making it difficult for victims to get away from perpetrators of domestic abuse.
A business’s duty of care has not changed, but most employers would not necessarily realise that this duty extends to looking out for signs of domestic abuse in staff, which is why, given the current climate, Scully has highlighted the issue.
General duty of care
Common law implies all employers have a duty to take reasonable care of the health and safety of employees. Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1972, employers have a statutory duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of its employees. These duties mean businesses should take reasonable steps to look after both the mental and physical health of their staff.
Employers are aware of some of the negative aspects of working from home during the pandemic, including stress, loneliness, anxiety, lack of exercise and difficulty delineating work from home life. In response, many organisations have put in place measures advising employees (or directing them to appropriate advisers) to incorporate regular exercise and screen breaks, maintain good mental health and manage their work/life balance.
Employers have a statutory duty to conduct ‘suitable and sufficient’ risk assessments to identify hazards and degree of risk under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. Identifying hazards for home workers is more than providing them with information on how to set up their desks properly, possibly ensuring a basic first aid kit is available at home and that all technical equipment is maintained.
Compliance with health and safety legislation should be proactive, rather than reactive. It includes supporting employees’ physical and mental health – and domestic abuse at home is part of this.
Many employers have encouraged positive attitudes towards mental health awareness, leading to more staff feeling supported, as well as building employee engagement and hopefully retention. Keeping in regular contact with home workers is an important health and safety compliance step.
Employers should look out for signs of domestic abuse and respond appropriately to support victims. To raise awareness of this, employers should consult with staff, trade unions or employee representatives to develop a domestic abuse policy and implement it.
The consultation is a good way to raise awareness of the fact that the employer is supportive and can signpost concerned employees towards help. The policy can inform staff how to report safely and confidentially. It could also contain agreed code words or signs that victims can use in calls or video conferences to signify to managers or colleagues that they need help under the policy. Help may be someone to listen, access to advice, exceptions to be made for them to work somewhere other than home, flexibility around working hours, time off to attend support appointments or help with getting appropriate support.
As is always the case, employers should record accidents and actions taken. This can be forgotten when the majority of staff are working from home. Reports of domestic abuse from employees and any actions taken should also be confidentially recorded.
The policy can also help colleagues understand how to respond if they are concerned about a colleague. Employers may want to train some staff members as part of its policy. In addition to HR, this might include volunteers in the same way colleagues have volunteered to be mental health first aiders.
It is not that employers and managers are to become counsellors, but it is recognising that, as part of the statutory duty of care, an employee’s health, safety or wellbeing may be compromised, and it’s important to take reasonable steps to support them.
Emma Bartlett is a partner at CM Murray