Workplace support for domestic abuse victims

According to the Domestic Abuse Bill 2020: overarching factsheet, there are some 2.4 million victims of domestic abuse per year, aged 16 to 74. Two- thirds of those victims are women.

Domestic abuse has been compounded by Covid-19. More people have been required to work from home and limit the number of times they leave their house. In the recent Service Review 2020/21 of Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline, the charity revealed “across the last ten months (April 2020 – Feb 2021), average calls and contacts logged on our database per month is 61% above the January - March 2020 baseline”. In April’s Budget, the Chancellor announced funds of £19 million to tackle domestic abuse.

What do employers need to know? 

“I ended up going back to work far too quickly after being discharged from hospital and then couldn’t cope with the stress – I was effectively signed off sick for a two-year period. Had the employer been better equipped to support me and known to make allowances for a gradual return, things may have been different.” These are the words of Katie Walker, public speaker and Pride of Britain winner.

The impact of domestic abuse is wide and affects employers whether they realise it or not. Domestic abuse can directly impact victims in the workplace and will often lead to practical issues for the employer including lateness, absenteeism, inappropriate behaviour and a lack of productivity. In turn, this can lead to disciplinary action being taken against the victim, up to and including dismissal. This can also lead to issues for employers such as staff retention issues, which in turn can lead to increased turnover and increased recruitment costs.

According to research cited in the TUC’s 2014 survey report on Domestic violence and the workplace, “more than one in five victims may need to take time off work because of abuse and two percent lose their jobs as a direct result of domestic abuse”. Where domestic abuse victims do attend work, they may have to face issues at work such as perpetrators ringing up, emailing repeatedly and / or turning up at the workplace.

The government’s review on support in the workplace for victims of domestic abuse

Last year, the government launched a review on support in the workplace for victims of domestic abuse. The Brabners Employment and Family teams feel so passionately about the issue of domestic abuse that we submitted a joint response to the government’s review. In our response we mentioned ways in which employers can support victims of domestic abuse such as exercising their discretion to offer paid leave and widening the eligibility criteria for those able to apply for flexible working to include victims of domestic abuse regardless of their employment status or length of service.

The government’s report on the review was published earlier this year at the same time as an open letter to employers on this subject.

One of the key themes that emerged from the review was the important role a domestic abuse policy can play. The government also committed to:

  • create awareness of domestic abuse as a workplace issue
  • launch a working group made up of government, employers, representatives of domestic abuse victims and trade unions to lead on culture change and best practice and practical solutions
  • consulting on its election manifesto pledge to “encourage flexible working and consult on making it the default unless employers have good reasons not to” as well as consulting on “the steps which can be taken for victims of domestic abuse”

What can employers do to support their staff?

There are numerous practical steps that employers can take to support employees. Three of the most valuable ways of providing support are:

  • exercising their discretion to offer paid leave for domestic abuse victims. In most cases this can be a short term but invaluable form of support providing a much-needed buffer to allow victims to flee abuse and find somewhere safe to stay and seek legal advice or medical support.
  • offering to pay taxi fares to and from medical appointments or court hearings. This helps remove any potential barrier to receiving medical and legal assistance.
  • providing second phones. This is particularly helpful where a victim’s phone is being tracked or stalked by their perpetrator.

Whilst these sorts of measures are undoubtedly helpful, employers should primarily focus on getting the foundations right and building from there. Simple, cost effective initiatives can make a huge difference to victims of domestic abuse, particularly by changing the culture in your workplace and educating your workforce. For example:

  • reduce the stigma in your workplace around domestic abuse including by listening non- judgmentally.
  • raise awareness of domestic abuse, including educating and training all staff so that they are aware of the signs of domestic abuse and what they can do to help including signposting where to get help, and having posters on the back of toilet doors which provide information.
  • create Ambassadors/ Champions in the workplace: specially trained employees who are a point of contact for victims and can signpost victims to support services.
  • introduce a domestic abuse policy: this document sets out how an employer will support an employee. It can educate staff and help to create an environment where employees feel able to safely disclose domestic abuse and seek help.

During a time when more people are working from home or on furlough, employers will have to adapt their approaches to providing support to victims of domestic abuse who are based away from their normal workplace. The same will be true when, as is expected, hybrid working becomes more popular. Whilst the methods of providing support may have to adapt, the fact that support is provided by employers should be a constant.

Staff are an employer’s biggest asset and looking after their wellbeing is vital.

Contact us

One of the key themes that came out of the consultation was the important role a domestic abuse policy can play. If you wish to produce a domestic violence policy or indeed have any queries on employment issues related to domestic abuse, please contact a member of our Employment team.

This contains a general overview of information only. It does not constitute, and should not be relied upon, as legal advice. You should consult a suitably qualified lawyer on any specific legal problem or matter.