Helping victims of domestic abuse through the workplace

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By Professor Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay
Professor of Economics, Director of Centre for Crime, Justice and Policing

Domestic abuse is a serious worldwide problem. Globally, it is estimated that 1 in 3 women have experienced some form of domestic abuse in their life. The Crime Survey in England and Wales (2019) showed an estimated 2.4 million adults experienced domestic abuse in the last 12 months, though it remains grossly under-reported. While, news of physical violence is what often makes the headlines, domestic abuse can also be psychological, sexual or financial. These non-physical forms of abuse can be just as harmful and may take longer for it to be recognised as such.

The impact of domestic abuse is enormous and goes beyond the immediate harm caused.  Our research shows that victims of abuse are nearly three times more likely to suffer from mental ill health during their lifetime, and have above-average rates of diabetes, heart disease and all-cause mortality. Victims are also twice as likely to develop chronic conditions, including fatigue. Such abuse also has strong (negative) inter-generational consequences.

For example, there is a strong link between what are called adverse childhood experiences and later life outcomes. Living in a family where there is domestic violence is considered an adverse childhood experience. Children who have had such experiences are more likely to have social, emotional and cognitive impairment and have an increased risk of developing a number of physical and mental health conditions.

While discussing solutions to the problem of domestic abuse, the role that a supportive workplace environment can play is often overlooked. Indeed, according to the Corporate Alliance Against Domestic Violence, 39% consider it to be an inappropriate topic to discuss in the workplace. Yet, the impact of domestic abuse on the workplace is enormous in terms of lost productivity, including absenteeism. Moreover, 75% of people experiencing abuse are targeted by the perpetrator at their workplace.

There are encouraging signs that employers are taking this seriously. In the UK the Employer’s Initiative on Domestic Abuse (EIDA) is a network that supports employers in raising awareness of the problem of domestic abuse and provides access to available services that also work with the perpetrator. This is valuable as changes in perpetrator behaviour can make victims feel safer. As an example of a more proactive stance by employers, the Confederation of British Industries (CBI) did a recent launch of its domestic abuse policy and support package.

It is also important to consider how employers can work to support abuse victims at a time when more and more people are having to work from home due to COVID-19. A less visible cost of the pandemic has been an increase of domestic abuse and other crimes within the family. An important way to tackle this is via a public health approach with active syndromic surveillance. Such systematic collection of data to target at risk groups needs to be complemented by inputs from the workplace. With institutional support, work colleagues can play a role in supporting and providing advice on available resources to those who might be (often silently) suffering from abuse. In fact, the Department of Health recognises the role that employers can play and provides guidance on how to respond to work colleagues who experience domestic abuse.

Given the impact of domestic abuse on the workforce, it is encouraging to see employers taking initiatives to raise awareness and provide support for affected employees. Such responsible business practices are not only a humane response and part of an employer’s duty of care, it also makes for a healthier workplace. The workplace should thus be considered a key partner to help prevent domestic abuse and support those who experience it as part of an integrated approach that will help lower its incidence and prevalence.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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