A new toolkit for employers seeking to tackle domestic abuse in the workplace is being launched next year, the first major conference on tackling domestic violence in the workplace heard yesterday.
The toolkit, put together by Business in the Community and Public Health England and supported by the Insurance Charities, will bring together the best evidence, employer practice and freely available resource through an online portal.
Louise Aston from Business in the Community said: “I am optimistic that it will change lives and save lives.”
The toolkit and conference have come out of the Employers’ Initiative on Domestic Abuse EIDA) which was set up last year and already has 190 employer members.
Tony Hall, Director General of the BBC, which hosted the conference, said: “This is an initiative that has power and momentum to drive real change.”
Domestic violence affects one in four women and one in six men at some point in their lives. It results in two homicides a week and 400 people a year commit suicide because of it.
Cressida Dick, Metropolitan Police Commissioner, said the workplace should be a safe space for victims, although some had been targeted there.
She added that the police force as an employer was trying to tackle abuse by providing clear support and affording zero tolerance to employees convicted of it. It provided confidential helplines and was looking to put “a huge emphasis” on how to support women in the workplace and tackle the crimes that affect them in the next year.
Commissioner Dick spoke about the need to increase awareness of domestic abuse, which affected people from all walks of life, and to give members of staff the skills to spot the signs early on and to tackle it. Employers heard that signs included staying at work longer, coming in later, responding to lots of texts at work and giving reasons why they couldn’t go on visits.
Commissioner Dick read the words of a senior police officer who had been abused who spoke about the need for employers to confront the problem by signposting support services while being sensitive to the victim’s situation. Just asking if someone was okay was important, she said.
Home Secretary Amber Rudd said that employers had “a clear moral responsibility and a duty of care” to support victims of domestic abuse and signpost them to services that can help them.
There was also a strong business case in terms of the impact of abuse on absenteeism and mental health, among other issues. She said the government had announced funding of £100m for tackling violence against women and girls in the period to 2020 and was consulting on a new Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill.
She didn’t, however, mention growing concerns about proposed changes to housing benefit which could affect those fleeing abuse.
Victoria Atkins, Minister for Crime, Safeguarding and Vulnerability, said the Bill would create the first legal definition of domestic abuse and would provide “clarity and certainty” about patterns of abusive behaviour such as controlling, belittling and instilling fear.
In addition to the Bill the government was looking to appoint a domestic abuse commissioner to raise awareness and advocate for victims. Atkins said this would be “a real game changer”.
“We want to ensure that domestic abuse no longer remains in the shadows. We want to change the culture around domestic abuse and raise awareness,” she said. Employers had a critical role to play in enabling people to talk about abuse.
Ben Page, CEO of Ipsos MORI, and Professor Nicole Westmarland from the University of Durham spoke of new research which they said showed HR was in denial about how domestic violence might affect their workplace. It also showed many were not confident about confronting it, worried they would say the wrong thing.
They were particularly unconfident in knowing what to do about perpetrators. They needed resources and the taboo around domestic violence needed to be overcome, said Page. Professor Westmarland felt domestic violence needed to be seen as a key health and safety issue and to be part of employee assistance programmes.
The new Bill offered an opportunity for action. Others also highlighted parallels with increasing interest in mental health. Research from other countries such as the US and Australia could help make the business case.
The conference heard from a woman who had suffered domestic abuse. Her experience showed how many issues that employers are confronting in the workplace overlap. She spoke of experiencing multiple forms of abuse and how the lack of support from her employer once she got out of an abusive relationship had affected her.
A single parent with a severely asthmatic child, her employer had refused her flexible working and had effectively pushed her out of her job which led to a period of depression before Serena started her own business.
Richard McKenna, Inclusion and Diversity Director from Inclusive Employers, said employers needed to create an environment where people could be “a decent human”. Others spoke of practical things that could make a difference such as advertising helpline numbers, repeating offers of help and asking employees how things were at home.
The conference also heard how Holby City dramatised the subject of domestic abuse and why that was important in breaking taboos and opening up conversations.
In addition there was discussion of how to deal with perpetrators of abuse. Lieutenant General Richard Nugee spoke of the need to provide an incentive for perpetrators – excluding those convicted of serious abuse – to take part in its 24-week programme. That was staying in the armed forces and living up to its values as well as having access to the personal development it offered.
Dr Marianna Tortell, CEO Domestic Violence Intervention Project, spoke about the importance of ensuring programmes for perpetrators were accredited by Respect as this represented good practice. Respect offered a resource manual for employers which said they needed to recognise the problem, respond, refer the person and record the details.
Employers heard how it was important to think about the advice they gave and to be aware that it might not be safe for victims just to leave an abusive situation. The period when they left and just after was the time when victims were most likely to be killed.
Dr Tortell also said employers needed to be aware of the reputational risk if they didn’t do anything if someone they employed was known to be a perpetrator.
Elizabeth Filkin, who chairs the EIDA steering group, closed the conference urging more employers to join EIDA. “We need every workplace to be part of this initiative,” she said.