December 7, 2020

egg being hit with a hammer

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.  

Supporting employees  

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.  

LBJ Consultants are proud to support a large number of Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis  Centres throughout Scotland with all their HR and Employment Law requirements.

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