Covid-19: How Can Employers Help Support Staff who are now Working from Home and at Risk of Domestic Abuse?

Home working due to Covid-19 has increased the risks and fear associated with living with domestic abuse. Until Covid-19, the workplace may have been a person’s only safe place and only escape or respite from the daily abuse.

Isolation is a major tactic of abuse, and is now exacerbated by Coronavirus regulations. By keeping in regular contact, you can reduce isolation and ensure your employee knows they are not alone. Encourage other colleagues also to keep in touch with one another as much as possible. Just feeling that there are others out there who care can make a huge psychological difference to someone isolated from other sources of support by an abuser.

During ‘lock down’ and self-isolation, if a person is being abused it could be that their interaction with an employer or colleague during remote home working is the only contact they have with another person during the day. And this means your contact is hugely important both for emotional well-being, and for possible help in a crisis.

Employers can directly watch out for their employees’ welfare by making regular check-ins and direct communication with each employee. Remember that if your employee or colleague is experiencing abuse, phone calls may well be being monitored or virtual meetings observed. It is possible that just the knowledge that someone is making regular checks could deter or reduce some of the abuse, but it could also lead to a victim being punished or questioned about what was said. Be careful what you say, but equally, be sensitive to subtle clues or messages from an employee that suggest all is not well.

Employers can educate themselves to recognise warning signs that might indicate DA. Does the employee seem more anxious or nervous than usual? Or quieter and less communicative? Do they appear afraid? Or distracted? On edge? Do they look unusually tired? Is their productivity down, or their work less accurate than normal? (Around 60% of victims of domestic abuse report that it impacts on their ability to do their job properly and 75% says that the abuse makes it hard for them to concentrate on their work.)

Do you notice anything odd during phone calls or video conferencing? Do you hear any threatening behaviour or language or even body language from a partner in the background? Is it apparent that a partner is present during virtual meetings, or listening in, or frequently entering the room and disrupting the meeting? (Signs that a partner is very controlling and is monitoring the employee or deliberately trying to make it difficult for them to do their work – many abusers sabotage their partner’s jobs).

Is the employee dressed in an unusual way that suggests they could be covering up bruises or marks (eg wearing long sleeved outfits in this warm weather; wearing sunglasses indoors), or are they regularly turning off video during conferencing?

Consider additional factors (if you are aware of them or disclosed to you) – has the employee’s partner lost their job or lost income due to Covid-19? Some research has shown that when a woman becomes the sole “breadwinner” or earns more than her partner, domestic abuse can escalate – this would include financial abuse and possible physical violence. Are there children or stepchildren in the home? The presence of stepchildren in particular can increase risk. Is the employee pregnant – pregnancy heightens risk and abuse often escalates during pregnancy. Is the employee disabled, or of an ethnic minority, or LGBT+? (the groups experience additional vulnerabilities that may either increase risk or make them less likely to access help).

Do not assume that because your employee is male or is an older woman, that abuse is not happening. Any gender, any age, any income bracket, any education level, any sexual orientation can experience abuse.

If you do notice something that causes concern or just “doesn’t feel right”, have the confidence to ask your employees if everything is OK.

If you lose touch with an employee or don’t hear from when you expected to, make immediate efforts to re-establish the connection, and if you have any concerns, contact the police.

If someone asks for help, take it seriously, believe them, and listen without judgement.

If an employee discloses something to you, this probably means they have reached the point of needing and wanting help, but respect their right not to report to the police if they do not wish to do so. Ask them what help they need. Ask them what they want you to do. Respect their choice and their confidentiality.

However, don’t promise to keep secrets – if you believe children are at risk you should report to the police. Explain to the employee that anything they say is confidential unless they disclose that someone – especially a child – is at imminent risk of harm. Explain to the employee that you have to report such a disclosure for safeguarding reasons. You can also call the police in an emergency situation if you believe an employee is at imminent risk of harm, even if they have previously said they don’t want the police involved.

Perhaps your employee is the perpetrator, not the victim. Perhaps you witness behaviour or language towards other family members that causes you concern. Perpetrators are unlikely to admit to the abuse or to ask for help, but if you see something, abuse is everybody’s business and is never acceptable, do not hesitate to call the police if you fear for somebody’s safety. Perpetrators who are employees should be held accountable in a consistent manner for their behaviour – it may be that you could use your company’s Code of Conduct to remind them that their behaviour is unacceptable. If you discover they are using company equipment (eg mobile phones, computers) to monitor their partner, this should be viewed as misconduct at work and can be a disciplinary matter.

Perhaps both victim and perpetrator are employed by your company. If one employee’s well-being and/or productivity is being negatively affected by another employee, this too can be addressed through disciplinary policies. If an employee’s performance is being affected by another employee, even if this is occurring outside of work time, this should be a concern for you as their Manager. While remaining safety conscious and very mindful not to put an employee at risk, reminding the abusive employee that abuse and bullying of any sort will not be tolerated in the workplace (even if that workplace is currently the home) could be a useful incentive to someone to moderate their behaviour. Abusers abuse because it benefits them and gets them what they want (power, control, obedience, subservience, escape from responsibility).  If an employer alters that dynamic so that abuse can have a detrimental effect on the abuser (such as potential demotion or dismissal) this could potentially help reduce the abuse, but at all times make it plain that your response comes from your beliefs, company policy and what you personally have witnessed as unacceptable workplace behaviour. It is important that there is no reprisal against the victim when an abuser is in trouble at work. Take steps to protect and safeguard your employee victim if challenging your employee perpetrator.

Useful articles and resources:

https://www.hrmagazine.co.uk/article-details/hr-warned-to-look-out-for-signs-of-domestic-violence-during-remote-working

Employers Domestic Abuse Tool Kit from the Vodaphone Foundation: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5cd83ed84d871178f0307100/t/5ce6640d0d9297b48f5f0da5/1558602776101/vodafone-foundation-toolkit-on-domestic-violence-at-work-recognise-respond-refer.pdf

https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5cd83ed84d871178f0307100/t/5e4dbd5b2413ee1fc1414d2d/1582153060850/Hants_Police_-_Business_crime_guide_for_domestic_abuse.pdf

Spotting the Signs of Economic Abuse During Covid-19: advice for friends, family, neighbours and colleagues: https://survivingeconomicabuse.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Spotting-the-signs-during-coronavirus.pdf?fbclid=IwAR2Ivik-FCRaXw4Y5kfQzsB07doUSqTVy_YSpv14_bchMBc21py64H1SOxE

Economic Abuse and Covid-19 – help and information for victims: https://survivingeconomicabuse.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Economic-abuse-and-the-coronavirus-outbreak-110420.pdf