Sadly, domestic abuse is an age-old problem, but ‘lockdowns’, ‘firebreaks’ and other related restrictions on our everyday lives as a result of the pandemic have seen a significant rise in tensions and violence within the home. In May this year, Refuge, a charity which supports women, children and men experiencing domestic violence, reported a surge in demand for its services around the start of the lockdown in March, including more than a three-fold increase in visits to its website.
Demand then spiked again in the months that followed, with contacts to its helpline rising to a weekly average increase of 66% and website visits rocketing to a 950% rise compared to pre COVID-19. As Refuge points out, lockdown itself does not cause domestic abuse, but it can aggravate pre-existing behaviours in abusive partners.
Devastating emotional and financial costs
When we finally get over the COVID-19 crisis, domestic abuse is not going to go away. While the long-term trend in the scale of abuse is downward, government statistics show that in the 12-month period ending March 2019, an estimated 2.4
million adults aged 16 to 74 years in England and Wales had suffered domestic abuse (1.6 million women and 786,000 men).
That’s potentially a significant chunk of the working population. Furthermore, the overall cost of domestic abuse is estimated to be £66bn in England and Wales for the year ending March 2017. The largest element of this cost is the physical and emotional harm suffered by the victims themselves (£47bn). The next highest cost is for lost output relating to time taken off work and reduced productivity during the period of abuse (£14bn).
The statistics demonstrate that domestic abuse should be a concern for all of us, including employers.
Several years before COVID-19 appeared, the Government promised legislation aimed at improving the rights of those enduring domestic abuse and raising awareness. A Domestic Abuse Bill has now made its way through Parliament and, at the time of writing, was waiting for a second reading in the House of Lords.
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The Government has also carried out a review of how it and employers can better support domestic abuse victims in the workplace, including looking at best practice from employers within the United Kingdom and evidence from other countries as to how they approach domestic abuse, to see how the UK’s current employment framework on things such as access to flexible working and unplanned leave could be enhanced. Notably, New Zealand and the Philippines provide for paid domestic violence leave. The review is expected to report by the end of this year.
One of the main problems to emerge from lockdown has been the loss of support networks such as friends, family and colleagues. As a result, it is a lot harder for employers to spot that an employee is suffering domestic abuse, and employees are also less able to come forward about it, because of the lack of separation from the abuser – a problem that will continue if there is a societal shift towards home working in the years to come.
That’s why it is critical for employers not only to have a clear policy in place to support employees but also to make staff aware of the policy, and how to access support. This is the view of the CIPD and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which launched a guide for employers on how to support employees in September 2020.
The guide calls for an empathetic, non-judgemental approach and flexibility (for example, in working hours or concerning work tasks) as two key areas for employers to focus on, and stresses that, as many more people are working from home as a result of the pandemic, employers will need to consider how to maintain support.
Employer’s duty of care
Employers have an important part to play in destigmatising domestic abuse and creating an open culture where individuals feel safe to seek out support. The guide suggests that employers should allow employees to access professional support, whether in the form of legal or financial advice, housing support, counselling or arranging childcare. It also calls for employers to provide paid leave for those struggling to do their work or who need to access essential services.
While this kind of support is already offered by quite a few employers and will be considered good practice for a caring employer, any actions that an employer is required by law to take in order to protect the physical and emotional wellbeing of an employee are based on the duty to provide a safe place and system of work. There are three sources of this duty: an implied term in the contract of employment; the common law duty of care under the tort of negligence; and S.2 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, under which every employer is obliged ‘to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of... employees.
In terms of protecting employees in the workplace, what steps are considered ‘reasonable’ depends on the degree of risk to which the employee is subjected, and the likelihood of his or her coming to physical harm. So, for example, if an employer knows that an employee is being abused and there seems to be a prospect of the abuser turning up at the employee’s workplace, the steps it can be expected to take would be greater than
if it was unaware of the abuse. In such a situation, an employer might need to block telephone calls from an abuser’s phone and step-up security measures. How far the duty of care goes in respect of a homeworker who the employer knows is at risk of
domestic abuse will also turn on its knowledge and all the circumstances. An employer may, for example, be under a duty to provide an alternative workplace outside the home to give the employee a safe space, if only during the course of the working day.
This might sound extreme, but in a workplace setting an employer would have to take steps to protect an employee from an abusive
or violent colleague or customer, which could include offering an alternative site to work from.
For those employers who want to act now, the Employers’ Initiative on Domestic Abuse provides useful guidance and resources. Additionally, a toolkit produced by Public Health England and Business in the Community is available on www.gov.uk. As they say, there’s no time like the present.
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