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Employers’ crucial role in tackling domestic violence during Covid-19

17 Jun 2020 By Elizabeth Filkin

For victims of abuse, continuing to work from home is a terrifying prospect. Firms must take action to protect vulnerable staff, says Elizabeth Filkin

The last few months have seen our daily lives change beyond measure. With the government taking unprecedented steps to stop the transmission of coronavirus, many more of us than usual are working from home, and will continue to do so for the forthcoming weeks and months – something bringing silver linings for many.  

But for victims of domestic abuse, home is not a safe place. And if your workplace is your sanctuary, the idea of continuing to work from home isn’t just inconvenient – it's terrifying.

One in four women, and one in six men, will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime. Two women are killed by a partner or ex-partner every week in England and Wales. Police receive 100 calls an hour relating to domestic abuse. In normal times, work is often victims’ only safe space. But these are not normal times, and the recent spike in incidents of domestic abuse is as pronounced as it is worrying.  

So what can businesses do? The Employers’ Initiative on Domestic Abuse is urging all employers to keep in touch with those employees they know, or fear, may be facing abuse at this already difficult time – and to ask colleagues to do the same. This could take the form of regular video or phone calls, so that employers can have face-to-face contact with staff. Or where this presents a risk of being overheard, it could be through emails or text messages. 

For those facing domestic abuse, this could be their only access to support, and it’s important to make sure this contact is maintained. Should you lose contact with someone, take swift action to re-establish it. If you believe there is an immediate risk of harm to someone, or it is an emergency, you should always call 999.

Employers should also continue to signpost employees to support services. These could include:

  • Supermarkets and pharmacies that are open, which can provide a safe place to ask for help.  
  • The Bright Sky mobile app, free to download from the App Store or Google Play, provides support and information to anyone who may be experiencing domestic abuse or is concerned about someone they know.
  • The National Domestic Abuse Helpline is available 24 hours a day, for free and in confidence on 0808 2000 247.

It's important that employers are able to respond appropriately if an employee chooses to newly disclose their experience of domestic abuse. If they do, listen to them without judgement, ask them what they need and be guided by them. Take care not to blame them, excuse the perpetrator’s behaviour or ask them why they have not left.  

When employers demonstrate they are aware of domestic violence and make staff aware of the support available, this can help reduce the wall of silence that prevents many from seeking help. And although this business case is not our motivation, nor the motivation of our members, the cost of domestic abuse to business is estimated at £1.9bn a year – in the form of decreased productivity, time off work, lost wages and sick pay. So it’s clear there’s not just a moral imperative to act. There is a bottom-line argument to be made for tackling domestic abuse through the workplace too.

HR professionals obviously have a key role to play in making sure employees can access the help they need. But it is important to recognise that supporting victims can also have an impact on you. Looking after yourself is key when providing support to others. Do not take on too much or put yourself at risk – and remember you don’t have to act alone. There is specialist help available.

These are turbulent times, with the full might of government and civil society rightly focused on the response to Covid-19. But part of this response must acknowledge the increased risk to domestic abuse victims. We were pleased to work with the Home Office on its awareness campaign to offer support and advice for domestic abuse survivors and their families, and the government has made it clear that leaving one’s home to access domestic abuse support services is allowed and is counted as accessing medical care.

This epidemic of domestic abuse is one we can all help stop, and the scale of the problem demands every sector of our society rise to the challenge. Many of our members are taking action – for example, developing policies on domestic abuse, raising awareness among employees, training senior staff, managers and ambassadors on how to identify those who may need help, and offering direct help or signposting  to where it can be found. Through greater awareness, relationship building and the sharing of best practice, businesses can help make a systematic change to the way domestic abuse is handled in the UK. 

Further information, contacts and guidance can be found on our dedicated Covid-19 response page at eida.org.uk/our-covid-19-response.

Elizabeth Filkin is chair of the Employers' Initiative on Domestic Abuse

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