Elizabeth Filkin chairs a Vodafone Foundation project which has helped to save the lives of victims of life-threatening domestic abuse through giving them rapid access to the police.
Last year the Foundation celebrated its success at an event at the House of Commons. Filkin felt more could be done, given the extent of domestic abuse. She wanted to reach more people who had experienced domestic abuse and help them get the support they needed.
Given that most adults are in work, she felt the workplace was a good place to start. “I thought I could get employers to build something into their wellbeing programmes. I felt if we were really serious about breaking the culture of abuse we had to get mass involvement to demolish the wall of silence,” she says.
She was told that employers were unlikely to want to get involved, but she decided to test the waters. She spoke to the head of HR at the House of Commons who had just done a project on mental health. He was very supportive. A project manager was appointed and Elizabeth started meeting employers. So far she has got 170 on board the Employers’ Initiative on Domestic Abuse and they are holding their first conference later this month.
Those employers range from Lloyds Banking Group to the Nursing and Midwifery Council to the Catholic Church, the Church of England and Nando’s. Membership is free.
The group now has a steering committee which a broad range of sectors represented. “The overwhelming response has been positive and thoughtful. Some employers were already doing things,” says Filkin who started her career as a lecturer and community worker at the National Institute for Social Work and has worked in the civil service, becoming Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards in February 1999. More recently she led the News International phone hacking scandal.
Survey and toolkit
The steering group meets quarterly and there are speakers on issues ranging from the support employees can be signposted to and legal issues to how to deal with perpetrators. The Vodafone Foundation has funded a research project by Ipsos Mori on the barriers facing employers who want to help their staff. The findings will be showcased at the conference and a toolkit for employers, created by Business in the Community and Public Health England, will be launched. The initiative hopes to spread good practice to employers of all sizes.
“We don’t tell employers what to do,” says Filkin. “But we do spread information on what other employers are doing. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel.” In addition to the moral case for helping employees, the group also makes a strong business case for why employers should do more given the impact on productivity and absenteeism of domestic abuse. Taking a more holistic approach to employee well being is also positively viewed by potential recruits, says Filkin. She says there is a strong case for not only supporting victims but addressing perpetrators, given many have themselves experienced abuse as children.
A number of members of the initiative are doing innovative things to raise awareness and to show they are concerned about domestic abuse. That includes giving staff training about how to recognise the signs that someone may be being abused and to know how to handle conversations sensitively so they feel they have someone to talk to if they want to.
Some employers are really imaginative,” says Filkin. “One employer had a week highlighting domestic abuse and had ‘ambassadors’ wearing badges inviting people to talk to them about domestic abuse. That was not just for people who had experienced abuse, but also anyone who was worried about someone they knew who was experiencing it. They had 10 disclosures within the first week.”
She mentions an employer who gave an employee a private space and phoneline so she could ring her lawyer and support agencies in private because her partner who was abusing her checked her mobile phone. The employee was supported by her employer to leave an abusive situation and her team organised a rota of employees who would escort her to the tube every evening as she was worried she would be followed.
Gentoo, a housing organisation in the North East of England, has taken a proactive approach to domestic abuse in terms of its customers and employees. It has a dedicated domestic abuse business manager, provides a free legal clinic for staff (accessed by over 70 people since 2015), provides access to a domestic violence perpetrator programme for staff and its clients, allows paid leave to attend the perpetrator programme and the Freedom programme for victim-survivors, or to attend court or other appointments. It has 25 trained domestic and sexual violence champions.
All managers have attended a mandatory ‘Justice for Jane’ session while an employee leaflet recognises that: “For some staff, the workplace is a safe haven and the only place that offers a route to safety.”
Changing work culture
Although many of the support services for victims of domestic violence have faced cuts and closure in the last few years, by raising awareness the initiative aims to get the subject of domestic abuse taken more seriously.
Asked if employers are taking on too many different social issues, Filkin says the initiative is part of an overall change in work culture, a greater interest in family support and mental well being and an understanding that employees bring “their whole selves” to work.
“I think we are seeing change in the culture with regard to what it is right for employers to do and how it is right for people to behave to each other at work,” she says, referring also to the current discussion around sexual harassment at work.
“The effect of living with domestic abuse is devastating. Not just for the person abused, but for those who witness it such as children. Domestic abuse does such harm in our society yet it is not taken seriously enough. One in four women in the UK say they have at some point been subject to domestic abuse and around one in six men. It causes two deaths a week. It is a huge issue and needs to be taken much more seriously.”