How one company is tackling domestic abuse – and why speaks to Morgan Sindall Infrastructure about its comprehensive and well thought-through policy on tackling domestic abuse and  discusses why it matters.

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Research shows that domestic abuse rates increased during the Covid pandemic as people were more likely to be confined to their homes, often with little contact with the outside world. Employers, however, are one of the main links with that outside world and increasing numbers are recognising that they have a responsibility to look after employees who may be affected, especially when it impacts their work.

One such employer is construction firm Morgan Sindall Infrastructure which has rolled out support for its people in recent months.

Domestic abuse is an issue HR Director Katie Smith felt passionately about and she asked Learning and Development Partner Sarah Haywood to scope out a policy for the company. For Sarah it was “an incredible honour” to be part of the conversations and the “rollercoaster of emotions and insights” that ensued. Katie says it took time to get it right because of the very sensitive nature of the issue. “There were many head in hand moments, particularly when it came to policies related to perpetrators,” she said. “We wanted to get it right and partner with the right people, but I am exceptionally proud of what Sarah and the team have achieved. They have put a lot of effort and emotion into lifting the lid on this subject.”

Sarah began by looking at the responsibility of the business with regard to domestic violence, the role it can play and what a policy might look like. She was able to crystallise the reasons why Morgan Sindall Infrastructure should take action which could be presented to the senior management team. The team were convinced from the start, says Sarah, adding that she began with statistics about how many women and men in the company were likely to be affected based on national statistics. The 2020 Crime Survey for England and Wales estimated that 1.6 million women and 757,000 men aged 16 to 74 years experienced domestic abuse in the previous year. Sarah worked out that as many as 600 people at Morgan Sindall Infrastructure might be affected by domestic violence.

Katie says: “It’s about being responsible and above all about helping individuals, but there is also a business benefit in terms of the staggering amount of working time lost due to dealing with domestic abuse cases.”

Scoping out a policy

Having got senior management backing, Sarah looked at how employers protect their employees beyond the working environment, focusing on four areas, covering policy, education and communication [lifting taboos], practical support and partnerships with experts.

On the policy and partnerships side, the aim was to become a member of the Employers Initiative on Domestic Abuse [EIDA] and to encourage other employers to join, to support not just victims but also perpetrators and to link up with partners such as the charity Hestia.

On the practical side, Hestia’s free Bright Sky app, which directs people to local and other support if they are experiencing domestic abuse or are concerned about friends and family members, was made available for employees to download on their phones. HR business partners were trained by Hestia to boost awareness of the app and domestic violence generally. Sarah says that the training has alerted her to check in on someone who she suspects is being abused who has not come into work. “It’s so important and powerful,” she says.

Two working parties were set up – a policy group drawing on people from across the business and an education group which worked on how to engage people.

Policy wise, Morgan Sindall Infrastructure offers 10 days paid leave to victims which they can use, for instance, to leave a violent home. Victims can get an advance on their salary if necessary. They can temporarily change their working patterns to reduce contact with an abuser if they also work in the company. The company can ensure that someone does not work alone and help divert threatening emails and calls.

Raising awareness

The education group linked its work with the annual international campaign, 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, given that that coincided with media reports about domestic abuse and provided a good opportunity to educate people.

Morgan Sindall Infrastructure then put together a webinar with Hestia to find what support there was across the business. Sarah says it was quite tricky to find speakers because no-one feels comfortable disclosing abuse. However, one man came forward, as did a woman who had never publicly told her story before. “It was very powerful,” says Sarah. At the webinar people were told how Morgan Sindall Infrastructure could help, and several people talked about abuse they had suffered in the past. Sarah was keen to get people to talk amongst themselves and to ensure that sessions were not dominated by HR which can be an inhibitor.

A page was built on the company intranet providing lots of support on where people could go for help. Sarah also commissioned a company to create illustrative drawings [as shown in the illustrations for this article] about different types of domestic abuse, from domestic and psychological abuse to financial and emotional control. These were put up around the company’s projects and offices. She was keen that these were not posters that would be difficult to look at, but wanted to capture the intensity of the different forms of abuse and also to subvert stereotypes, for instance, that only women are victims of abuse.

Each poster had a QR code which linked to more information. The posters are downloadable and have since gone up on toilet doors so people can discreetly take the information in.

Morgan Sindall Infrastructure has also worked with Hestia to sponsor an independent domestic violence advocate who can provide additional support and direct people – victims and those who are concerned about someone – to the right support, from help in court to financial support and behavioural programmes.

In addition,  Sarah is looking at more ways to increase awareness, for instance, along the supply chain and is considering partnerships with schools to deliver sessions to sixth formers.

“We are continuing the drumbeat of conversation about this subject,” she says.

A broader approach

Other construction firms have domestic violence policies or are developing them, including other parts of Morgan Sindall Group. Its Property Services arm, which services 200,000 properties, has provided domestic abuse training to all employees, giving them an understanding of what constitutes domestic abuse, how to spot it and what to do if they have a concern either about a colleague or a customer.

This included property service operatives who were among the few people entering people’s homes during the pandemic as they continued delivering essential services, highlighting the importance of spotting signs of abuse.

So far there have been a number of people reaching out to the independent domestic violence advocate. All of the conversations with the advocate are completely confidential so the company doesn’t know what the impact has been. “But even if we have helped a few people and changed their lives, that is important,” says Katie.

“It is such an honour to do this,” adds Sarah. “It is not often you get challenges that can make such a difference to people’s lives. The more we talk about and have conversations about these things, the more we can lift the lid on what is happening.”

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