Employers play a key role in breaking the taboo around domestic violence — Guest blog by Kati Hernesniemi

Domestic abuse is a serious problem that touches the whole of society. Internationally, victims of domestic abuse use 30%-100% more social and health services than the rest of the population. It is surprisingly often the real reason behind sick leave.

Domestic violence costs society and companies. The European Institute for Gender Equality estimates that the yearly costs are 109 billion euros. Costs are related to physical and emotional impact, provision of services (health, social welfare, and justice), lost economic output (lost earnings and absence of work), specialized services (shelters, helplines, support centers, and counseling).

In the Netherlands, 70% of domestic- and partner violence victims have a paid job. For their employers, this means very high sick leave costs. More than 50% of the victims take at least 3 vacation days per month. Yet, 50%-70% of employees taking sick leave have nothing medically wrong and 10%-15% of total sick leave is due to domestic abuse. Domestic abuse costs businesses about 136 million euros annually. (Source: 1 and 2)

The costs of domestic abuse to society were last estimated in Finland in the early 2000s. At that time, it was calculated that Finland would incur annual direct costs of around 48 million euros. The Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL), together with Statistics Finland and the University of Jyväskylä, is carrying out the LAKU study of the costs of domestic violence in Finland. The project is scheduled to finish in 2022. The objective is to produce research-based information on the costs of domestic violence to support decision-making and service development.

Domestic abuse comes to the workplace

Domestic abuse and partner violence affect the workplace more often than employers expect. Abuse has a huge impact on individuals, the immediate environment, and society. Domestic abuse and partner violence have a long-lasting effect on the victims. It may take significant time before the victims are able to leave the unsafe situation. Sometimes even years. If the employee does not feel safe at home, this evidently has some consequences for their employment sooner or later.

The workplace is sometimes the only safe place for the victim. Despite the terminology, domestic abuse has no boundaries, it affects on the individual’s life holistically, spreading into all areas of life, including the workplace. Domestic abuse does not stay at home.

Typically, the employee will experience concentration problems, high stress, and anxiety at work. Employees may come often late and leave early, or take sick leave often. In general, productivity falls and the employee may become too incapacitated to work. In the worst case, this all may lead to losing their job. It robs the employees of their dignity and their health. Therefore, it is vital that the people around the victim take action to support them. The employer can play a key role here.

Breaking the taboo

Many times, the effects of domestic- and partner abuse at the workplace are heavily underestimated by employers. When thinking about domestic abuse, we do not typically think about the workplace.

Employers may also have assumptions or beliefs that while domestic violence is an important issue to address in society, it won’t “happen here”. It is understandable that many people may feel uncomfortable around the topic. Often, employers see the issue as taboo and use this as an excuse not to address it.

Because of this, the victims, their friends, and their family are normally not eager to talk about the situation. As a result, the violence sometimes drags on for years with all its consequences. Normally it takes a long time and many attempts to speak about the domestic abuse and reach out for help. It is often necessary for the environment to intervene to stop the violence.

Therefore, it is vital that not only managers but also employees, in general, are able to spot the signs of domestic violence and be open to supporting the victim. It helps if a direct supervisor, a company doctor, or a confidential counselor recognizes signals and brings them up.

Social services, law enforcement, health care services, and educational institutions can address the problem, only after the victim has reached out for help. An employer can support the victim by enabling them to get professional help faster. (Check out Aino tool for victims of domestic violence.)

Due to Covid-19, ignorance of the problem is no longer an excuse for employers. Employers cannot hide behind characterizing it as a“family matter, or a“legal matter”, that does not belong in the workplace.

Employers can support the victims of assault in two ways. Firstly, by making domestic violence discussable and relatable. Secondly by providing flexibility to the victims to deal with the issue.

Spotting domestic abuse

The fact that domestic abuse occurs in many forms, comes often as a surprise. For example, physical, financial, and coercive control, gaslighting, sexual abuse, blackmailing, and cyberbullying.

The pervasiveness and severity of domestic violence impacting the workplace demand the attention of employers, managers, human resources, and security staff. It is possible, for example, that an individual is being followed to the office or the perpetrator tries to enter the office building.

Therefore, it is vital that not only managers but also other employees in the organization are able to spot the signs and be open to supporting the victim.

Attention must also be paid in the workplace to highlight certain employee complaints. The direct supervisor, the company doctor, and the confidential counselor play an important role in this. They must recognize these signals and make them discussable with an employee.

There are clear red flags that can indicate problems at home. An employee who often has bruises due to ‘clumsiness’ or accidents at home, for example. Another signal is a reluctance to talk about their home situation or sensitive reactions to the suggestion of private problems. Increased absenteeism, lack of concentration, or poorer performance can also indicate problems at home.

For example, signals can be:

  • Bruises or other injuries, which the employee says were caused by knocks or falls
  • Wearing long sleeves when it’s very warm
  • Not wanting to talk about home or getting angry when someone asks if there might be problems at home
  • Disappointing work performance, often late and often sick
  • Anxious or emotional behavior
  • Keeping oneself away from colleagues
  • Receive a lot of messages from the (ex) partner, which clearly have a disruptive effect

It is important not to immediately draw the conclusion that this concerns domestic violence. The signals may, however, be a reason to start a conversation with the employee in question.

How to address the issue

The next question that pops into the mind of an employer is how to address the problem. It is not expected that the employer would be an expert or fully equipped to handle the situation. The employer does not need to take a role that should be filled by local social workers, police, or legal professionals.

In international organizations, the workplace language is most often English. The management and employees may not speak the local language sufficiently to advise an employee on how to reach out for help. That makes the situation even more complex.

Training can be provided to managers and team leads or supervisors and coworkers about domestic violence. How it impacts on the workplace, how to respond and speak with the victims, and where to direct the victims for legal and social help. (If you are interested, please do reach out to our partner Hyvinpitely to learn more about training opportunities.)

It is extremely important to adjust the company culture in a way so that domestic abuse and partner violence is not taboo anymore. There is a lot of work to do to enable employees to talk about their concerns to employer’s representatives. In that sense, it is the employers’ responsibility to make sure the employees feel safe enough at the workplace to talk openly about the issues at home.

In fact, it would be desirable that employers have a policy that addresses domestic violence. It should be a part of the policy addressing workplace harassment. Such a policy should include, for example, the employer’s acknowledgment that domestic abuse and partner violence happen in society, and its impact on the workplace. The policy should state that the employer takes needed actions to direct the victims to resources and provides training to the workforce. Having such a policy in place does not mean that HR needs to meddle with employees’ personal lives. However, providing support and flexibility for abused employees benefits an employer significantly.

Measures to support victims of domestic violence as an employer:

  • Include domestic violence in policies to combat violence and aggression at work.
  • Train managers and supervisors to recognize and respond to domestic violence. Make sure they know who can provide the help internally (for example, the confidential adviser) or externally. Underline how important it is to respect privacy and confidentiality.
  • Provide employees with information so that they can recognize the problems in their home situation and know when to call for help.
  • Is there a confidential advisor, company social worker, or company doctor available within the organization? Make sure employees know where to go for help at work or make information available about help outside the organization.
  • Create a corporate culture where employees feel safe to ask for help, for themselves or for a colleague.
  • Be clear about the security procedures in the organization so that employees do not endanger their own safety and that of their colleagues, for example by giving an offender access to the building. Clarify where to report potential security issues and threats.
  • Where possible, take measures to protect a victim, for example by:
  • Screening incoming calls
  • Keep the name and contact details of employees confidential
  • Adjust the victim’s workplace and times.

The text is written by Kati Hernesniemi a domestic violence survivor living in the Netherlands.

We Encourage offers companies an easy way to support victims of domestic violence. Companies can offer our Aino tool and resources as an employee health benefits package. Interested in supporting your employees with our Aino AI tool? Contact us!

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We Encourage is on a mission to empower women and girls under oppression. WE develops a customizable AI tool to help victims of domestic abuse.