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How can HR spot the signs of domestic violence during lockdown?

28 May 2020 By Angela Paradise

There has been an increase in reported cases of abuse in the home since lockdown began. Angela Paradise advises on what people teams can do – during the current crisis and beyond

As lockdown continues following the government’s updated measures, many people will be grateful for the opportunity to continue working from home, avoiding the anxiety of using crowded public transport when the virus is far from eradicated. But for some, home is not a safe place. The world has seen an increase in reported cases of domestic violence – including deaths – since lockdown began, meaning some are stuck in a daily nightmare. We have seen the reintroduction of the domestic abuse bill in parliament on 3 March 2020, and the launch of a new campaign under the hashtag #YouAreNotAlone by the home secretary in April, aimed at raising awareness of the help available to those who are either at risk of, or already experiencing, domestic abuse.

An employee’s private life is generally exactly that – private – apart from what is shared through social media, should an employer choose to view it. In normal circumstances, when staff are coming into work, changes in behaviour can be easier to spot than while they are remote working.  Employees in abusive relationships rarely share their situation with their employer, for fear of repercussions. In fact some workplaces refer staff to disciplinary processes where they’ve demonstrated emotional outbursts and certain behaviours, which can leave people feeling alone and with nowhere to go.

While absences from work still require reporting under attendance management policies, remote working can hide something that would usually require absence reporting, such as claims of ill- health to cover injury caused by domestic violence or staying home to protect others.

The usual steps to take will fall into the following main categories:

Recognising the signs: unexplained injuries (harder to detect while remote working), decreased productivity, frequent lateness or absences and changes in behaviour.

Responding to the signs: always be sensitive and non-judgmental, avoid giving your opinion or telling someone what action to take, other than straightforward signposting for support and advice. Always prioritise safety over work output and allocate private time and space to listen, which may be outside of core business hours if the person is only away from their abuser at certain times. Never seek proof of abuse – this is not HR’s remit. In addition, it is important never to contact the abuser, even if this person is also an employee of the organisation. If you think there is an immediate threat to someone then call 999.

Many organisations are benefiting from telephone conferencing for video meetings, such as on Zoom or Microsoft Teams, but not all colleagues choose to switch on their camera when they join. This could mean they simply don’t wish their manager or colleagues to see inside their home, but it could mean something else. Managers should always encourage at least one interaction per week to be a virtual face-to-face meeting. This is difficult where an employee is the victim of a controlling person who may be watching and listening to their every move and interaction.

As people start returning to work as lockdown arrangements change, employers should enable anyone they know to be at risk of harm at home to return to the workplace first.

The last thing HR wants to do is make a bad situation worse, and there are strict rules about what we can do and what is off limits; it is certainly not for us to become involved in the personal lives of staff.  We must be led and advised by our own safeguarding colleagues and contacts in local authorities.  We all have a basic duty of care for the safeguarding of others and, certainly within the NHS, all staff must undertake mandatory safeguarding training. Other industries may wish to consider adopting something similar. We can collectively, as employers, help to break the silence about this very real issue. We can encourage staff to seek help and promote safety at home as an integral part of health and wellbeing interventions.  

We can ensure our employee assistance programmes have dedicated pages and experts available to speak to in relation to domestic abuse. Occupational health teams can also be a useful source of support. Equalities networks are essential to help us understand the cultural differences that can make speaking up about abuse even more difficult for some. Again, we must tread carefully while ensuring that where we can appropriately help we do so.

There are many routes staff can be signposted to, all of which can be included in regular staff newsletters, communications and briefings. Having a regular section on health and wellbeing is an ideal place for this. 

Angela Paradise is interim director of HR at NHS South East London Clinical Commissioning Group

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