The prevalence of domestic abuse

An estimated 2.3 million adults aged 16 to 74 experienced domestic abuse in the year ending March 2020 in England and Wales.[1] Whilst both men and women experience domestic abuse, women are considerably more likely to suffer domestic abuse and repeated and severe forms of abuse. Of the 2.3 million adults, 1.6 million were women. The national lockdown restrictions introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and increased homeworking have reduced potential escape routes for women from abusive situations and the number of reported domestic abuse incidents has increased. The charity Refuge recorded a 700% increase in the number of visits to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline between April and June 2020.[2]

Given the prevalence of domestic abuse, most employers will have employees who are impacted in one way or another by the issue. Domestic abuse charities make it clear that domestic abuse impacts all areas of society and employees in professional and senior roles are not immune from it.

Is it an employer’s issue?

We’re seeing an increase in employers introducing specific policies and training for staff on domestic abuse. What is driving this?

Primarily, it appears to be a recognition that whilst domestic abuse happens away from work, it does impact employees’ abilities to carry out their jobs. For example:

  • The TUC has found that over 40% of individuals surveyed experiencing domestic abuse were prevented from getting to work: 72% through physical violence or restraints and 68% by use of threats.

  • For those who can get to work, approximately 75% are targeted at work [3], for example, through threatening phone calls and emails.

  • Domestic abuse can also have a significant impact on employees’ mental health, which doesn’t stop at the door of the (virtual) office. This means that in many cases, the abuse employees suffer at home will impact the way they behave at work. Indeed, Business in the Community (“BITC”) report that 54% of employers said that domestic abuse caused the quality of an employee’s work to suffer and 56% said it led to absenteeism.

  • BITC also estimates that the cost of domestic abuse to businesses is £1.9 billion a year, caused by decreased productivity, time off, lost wages and sick pay.

Whilst many employers have been proactive in this area due to genuine concerns for employees’ welfare, it’s clear that they also have a vested interest in ensuring that their employees can access help.

The legal position

From a legal perspective, there is no specific legal duty to take steps to support employees who are suffering from domestic abuse. Recently, there has been a lot of discussion around employers’ duty of care under section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 to do all that is “reasonably practicable” to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees at work. BITC reported that 86% of HR leads consider that employers have a duty of care to provide support to employees on the issue of domestic abuse. BITC, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (“CIPD”) and other organisations such as the United Nations Women expect employers to deal with domestic abuse as part of this duty.

UK government consultation

Between June and November 2020, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) launched a review into the support for individuals suffering from domestic abuse in the workplace. Its response was published in January 2021. The response sets out its key findings, best practice for employers and the positive role employers can play in supporting employees.

BEIS commits to work with employers to raise awareness of domestic abuse as a workplace issue and ensure employers have the tools to support their staff. While the response does not introduce a new legal duty on employers, the government promotes the ACAS working from home during the coronavirus pandemic guidance on domestic abuse. ACAS states that “Employers have a legal duty of care to their employees and should: look out for signs of domestic abuse; respond appropriately; support someone who is experiencing domestic abuse; and, keep a record of incidents at work and when employees report domestic abuse, and any actions taken”.

The response was accompanied by an open letter from the Business Minister, Paul Scully, to all employers setting out key steps they can take. There is clearly an increased focus in this area by the government and a push for employers to be the drivers of change and progress. The response also indicates that further changes could be on the horizon, stating that the government will “continue to promote awareness of the role of employers and their duty of care towards employees facing domestic abuse through the Domestic Abuse Bill statutory guidanceand also commits to “consult on the steps which can be taken for victims of domestic abuse, for example, how to exercise existing rights more effectively.”

What should employers do?

Awareness, knowledge and support from employers is critical not only in helping to provide a safe space for employees, but also in ensuring that employees can give their best when working (whether at home or in the office). Employers are often in a position to provide a lifeline to individuals at work and create what the CIPD calls “a safe and supportive workplace culture”. The government consultation response refers to evidence provided to the review that there are unmet needs for victims of domestic abuse in relation to flexibility and time out of work. The government has also said that it will carry out a consultation on how to make flexible working the default.

There are a number of steps employers can take to support employees affected by domestic abuse.

A good starting point for employers is to educate themselves so that they:

  1. Awareness

    • are aware of the ways in which domestic abuse can manifest itself and signs employees may show which indicate they require support;

    • understand what specialist support is available for employees and what employers should do if staff disclose that they are suffering from domestic abuse. A common misconception is that those suffering domestic abuse should simply leave the family home, but this is actually the most dangerous time for sufferers, so it’s important that employees are directed towards specialist services;

    • understand that economic abuse is one of the most prevalent forms of abuse, for example, preventing the victim from working or working successfully, and so limiting their independence. Research from KPMG and Vodafone found that “the potential loss of earnings per woman in the UK as a result of abuse having negative impacts on career progression is estimated to be £5,800 each year”[4];;

    • can appoint a domestic abuse champion or join a wider third party knowledge sharing network. Networks are a particularly useful resource for smaller employers with less resources; and

    • understand the legal framework for employers in relation to domestic abuse. As the government explain in its response, this includes sick pay, “annual leave, measures to promote flexible working and entitlements to short periods of time away from work to deal with emergencies involving dependants.” Another issue discussed in the response was the feedback from trade union representatives that they often support members facing capability procedures who are victims of domestic abuse but have not disclosed this to their employer.

  2. Action

    Once employers have an understanding of the dynamics of domestic abuse, they should then look at their organisational approach to supporting employees:

    • While understanding that not one size fits all, develop a domestic abuse policy and approach following the guidance available (see section 3 below). Take steps to ensure that employees feel they can seek support by creating a supportive atmosphere for employees, embedding it into your culture and also across the organisation, through leadership on the topic and raising awareness. Ensure that your organisation is leading from the top on its approach to supporting those affected by domestic abuse and break down barriers in this space. This will help to encourage people to speak out.

    • Be cognisant of the fact that employees experiencing domestic abuse may require support outside of work for financial, legal or childcare issues. This may include allowing time off during working hours for court appearances, counselling or seeking legal advice – for those still in abusive relationships, working hours are often the only time they can safely seek support.

    • There are many other ways you can support employees, including: making provision for emergency accommodation or offering an allowance to employees to assist them with this; paid leave; advice on visa or settled status if this is dependent on their partner; bespoke safety plans (usually made in conjunction with a domestic abuse specialist); regular 1-1s where requested; paying salaries into separate accounts and diverting phone calls.

    • Consider the parameters for the different roles and responsibilities within your organisation, including HR, line managers and colleagues and think about guidance in each situation which arises.

    • Arrange for staff training to cover matters such as how to recognise the signs of domestic abuse and how to support employees who make a disclosure.

    • Treat all disclosures as strictly confidential and, as far as possible, on a need-to-know basis.

  3. Refer/Resources

    Employers are not expected to be experts in domestic abuse, but they should:

    • Be aware of the services and organisations that do specialise in this area, particularly locally, and signpost employees to these.

    • Consider whether they are required to report any incidences or reports of domestic abuse carried out by their employees to their regulator, for example where it could affect any regulatory certification or status (see also section 4 below).

    A number of organisations have prepared guidance for employers, which may be useful in developing your organisation’s approach to supporting employees impacted by domestic abuse. Some useful resources include:

  4. Consider approach with alleged abusers

Criminal conduct outside the workplace can have an impact on an employee’s role, and there are certain circumstances where employers can take disciplinary action, for example where the conduct impacts trust and confidence or the reputation of the employer. We would recommend that before adopting this approach, this issue is specifically addressed in a revised disciplinary policy and staff are made aware that misconduct outside the workplace will be taken very seriously. This is an area where individual circumstances must be considered and we would caution against a blanket approach.

Homeworking and domestic abuse

As noted above, the workplace is often a place where employees can escape abuse for limited periods of time. Mandatory working from home has meant that many people are now unable to escape and are also cut off from seeking support and day-to-day communication outlets. Often colleagues may be the only people they come into contact with outside of their homes, if they are cut off from family and friends. Employers should consider how to extend their support and initiatives to the home.

If you have not developed your own approach in this area yet, one initial step, which can be implemented relatively easily, is the Canadian Women’s Foundation “Signal for Help” initiative. Domestic abuse often involves the perpetrator isolating the individual from family and friends. Feelings of isolation can only increase with home working, social distancing and self-isolation. The initiative can help an employee who is subject to domestic abuse silently show that you need help and want someone to check in with you in a safe way.

The ‘Signal for Help’ involves your hand being held up with the palm facing the camera, before the thumb is tucked into the palm and fingers close over the top, as shown above.

If a signal for help is made and there is not already a plan put in place for the individual, the colleague on the call could call the employee and ask questions that can be answered with ‘yes’ or ‘no’, such as:

  • “Are you okay to respond?”

  • “Would you like me to call 999?”

  • “Should I arrange to check-in with you later today?”

Use of other forms of communication, such an email asking a general question can also be effective:

  • “Hope you are well?”

  • “Is there anything I can help out with?”

  • “Get in touch with me when you can”