What are the Barriers for an Employer to engage with training or any policy or procedures around Domestic Abuse for Employees?

Alpha Vesta’s Survivor Symposium is a network of survivors of domestic abuse, employers and HR Professionals.  Through the sharing of experiences and collaboration, all members seek to improve the lives of victims and survivors of domestic abuse as well as ensure workplaces and communities develop a strong understanding of domestic abuse and its impact to ensure they can be safe and supportive places to live and work.

This is the first research article being released by the Symposium which includes a combination of lived experience as well as academic and workplace research.

Members were asked the following question:-

What are the Barriers for an Employer to engage with training or any policy or procedures around Domestic Abuse for Employees?

1:1 Interviews, Small Focus Groups as well as larger events allowed Members to share their insight to produce the following article which was written by Founding Director and Lead Trainer at Alpha Vesta, Lucy Whittaker. Both she, and Alpha Vesta Ambassadors, Fiona Bowman and Natalie Queiroz are available for interview about the research. 

Barriers: What’s stopping you?

Top 10 reasons why Employers won’t get involved.

  1. Domestic Abuse doesn’t sit neatly into anyone’s ‘in tray’.
  2. Employers don’t see the problem – don’t know enough about domestic abuse?
  3. Employers don’t know how it impacts on their business and across their workforce
  4. Employers don’t want to open a ‘can of worms’ / make things worse
  5. Seen as a Private/Personal issue
  6. Don’t know how to respond
  7. No mandatory requirement
  8. Other issues they are trying to work on e.g. mental health, equality and diversity, racism
  9. Employers or Senior Leaders may well have been affected or are experiencing it currently.
  10. Cost

Top 10 Reasons why Employers won’t get involved

1. Domestic Abuse doesn’t sit neatly within anyone’s ‘in tray’

This is an ongoing challenge which we have with the work that we do at Alpha Vesta. Outside the workplace, domestic abuse transcends across many different services depending on the severity of it and the impact it’s having.The criminal justice system, the health sector and social care sector all have key roles to play but so do schools and educational establishments, the housing sector, local authorities, community organisations and charities.  The same is true of the workplace.

Sometimes domestic abuse sits within the remit of HR if lateness and absence is impacted.  Sometimes a mental health and wellbeing response is more of a feature where there is a decline in an employee’s mental health or morale.  This challenge continues because, at times, the impact of domestic abuse sits within the remit of a trade union if disciplinary procedures begin, health and safety legislation, security if staff are at risk as well as a companies’ corporate social responsibility agenda where they look at their social responsibility towards their community as well as their own staff.

Make no mistake though, the impact is always widespread in breadth rather than depth which makes it appear that the impact of domestic abuse isn’t an issue, where in actual fact, it’s in everyone’s in-tray, they just don’t necessarily recognise it.

An employee that’s having lots of time off for a health issue, could be due to domestic abuse.  An employee that’s struggling with their mental health, could be due to domestic abuse.  Poor career progression and high re-recruitment costs across an organisation, could be due to domestic abuse.  This makes navigating through an organisation challenging because different departments and areas of the organisation won’t necessarily feel the impact in the same areas at the same time.

2. Employers don’t see the problem – they don’t know enough about domestic abuse

Research that Alpha Vesta conducted across communities and workplaces before they were founded in 2019 highlighted that most people don’t generally understand what domestic abuse is, let alone its impact.Different stereotypes and biases dominate the narrative around domestic abuse with a focus on violence rather than psychological abuse and coercive control but also a big lean towards a female victim and a male perpetrator when we know abuse can indeed occur within any intimate relationship.  Many also don’t know that domestic abuse transcends across the whole family spectrum and not just within intimate relationships whereby the abuser may well be the victim’s son, daughter, granddaughter, grandson, nephew or other family member.Different cultures and belief systems often impact on someone’s ability to even see that they or someone they work with may be in an abusive relationship let alone those around them.  Different cultures and belief systems may not even acknowledge domestic abuse or see it as something that is private and occurs within the home so has no place being discussed outside of the home.  Some survivors believe that very male dominated workplaces hinder any discussion around domestic abuse which is often due to the ‘demonising’ of men around this subject matter or an ‘embarrassment’ around it.

There was a sense that employers needed to ‘feel’ what domestic abuse was like to understand it better which could be achieved through good training provision.

3. Employers don’t know how domestic abuse impacts on their business and workforce.

1 in 5 adults and 1 in 5 children are affected by domestic abuse. This impacts in the workplace through absence, lateness, ability for an employee to get to work, lower productivity, poor mental health and wellbeing as well as poor career progression and high recruitment costs.A 2019 study commissioned by KPMG and the Vodafone Foundation calculated the cost to the economy just due to work related absences related to domestic abuse stands at £316 million per year.

The Corporate Alliance Against Domestic Abuse, through their research, could tell us that 75% of victims of abuse are targeted at their place of work by the perpetrator through relentless calls, emails, text messages, turning up at the workplace or threatening to turn up at the workplace.

This is just the tip of the iceberg because once we dig down even further – the impact is phenomenal and costing any business or organisation an enormous amount each day.  Domestic abuse can also impact a victim’s ability to get to work, lead to time off, and, ultimately, job loss for many of those affected. Work performance is negatively impacted due to being distracted, stress, abusive phone calls, and e-mails. Tiredness and illness become an issue with anxiety, depression, headaches or direct injuries becoming more common.

Many domestic abuse victims also report that their colleagues experience harassment, or even threats of harm from the perpetrator but their colleagues are already feeling the impact.  They are often dealing with frequent phone calls, messages, or e-mails from the perpetrator, they become stressed or concerned about the situation and their work also becomes affected through increased workload and unpredictability.  The situation also causes conflict and tension between the victim and their colleagues often missing deadlines and not completing projects.   The victim themselves may have to take additional time off to attend criminal or family court hearings, attend appointments around housing or counselling or deal with health and medical issues which is adding to a team already feeling the pressure.

4. Employers don’t want to open a ‘can a worms or ‘make things worse’ for someone.

Those experiencing the impact of domestic abuse aren’t always able to have their experience taken seriously by higher levels of management. Higher Management Levels won’t necessarily see the day to day impact of domestic abuse or want to get involved and this is problematic when looking to get higher level support for any intervention or prevention.  For those that have started to realise the enormous impact on their business and workforce, overwhelming fear often emerges for them.  There’s a caution around opening this huge can of worms, someone’s life unravelling and the workplace being central to that.Colleagues or Line Mangers of a victim of domestic abuse fear that they may make things worse for their colleague if they escalate their concerns.  The victim may worry that they will lose their job or be placed on disciplinary procedures, perhaps worsening the abuse as well as putting their employment at risk.  Poor communication around this often results in a lack of successful intervention.

There was also considerable debate around a top-down approach vs a bottom-up approach to managing the impact of domestic abuse within the workplace.  A top-down approach was often needed to get an organisation to respond more broadly but a bottom-up approach was needed to ensure that a strong culture of understanding was embedded across a whole organisation.  This makes an entry point into an organisation incredibly difficult if those at the top don’t acknowledge the impact.

5. Intimate and Family relationships are seen as a Private/Personal issue

There is a still a prevailing narrative that ‘what goes on at home, should stay at home’ but there is now an increasing understanding that employees’ personal lives impact on their ability to do their job well.The impact of domestic abuse doesn’t just stay in the home though.  Not only will the perpetrator be potentially hounding the victim at work, their colleagues could also be threatened and harassed.  The impact of declining mental health, wellbeing, repeated illness, repeated absence for someone affected by domestic abuse doesn’t just stay behind closed doors.   The impact ripples across the workforce, colleagues of the victim become worried, concerned, frustrated, fearful and anxious.

6. Employers don’t know how to respond

Recognising the signs of domestic abuse is challenging enough – but responding to them creates high levels of anxiety for an employer – particularly if both the victim and perpetrator work for the organisation. It’s much easier to bury their head in the sand and ride the wave, hoping that things will just resolve themselves.We often see cases where the victim has been signed off sick, placed on disciplinary procedures or lost their job as an employer struggles to know how best to support the victim but also mediate the impact across their workforce.Others find the notion of domestic abuse quite frightening and overwhelming – they don’t want to think about it and if an employer doesn’t want to think about it – things don’t progress.  Sometimes there are issues around men talking to women about what they may be concerned about and equally women talking to men.  The notions of ‘women’s problems’ or ‘lad culture’ and ‘old boys clubs’ often create issues in even just talking about relationships and health more broadly.

7. No mandatory requirement for Employers

There is no legal mandatory requirement for Employers to provide training or implement a policy within their workforce however, domestic abuse does feed its way into some current legislation. The Health and Safety Act, 1974 places a duty of care on Employers to provide a safe working environment for all of their staff. It places a duty on them to provide reasonable measures to support staff at risk of harm in the workplace.  Because there is no mandatory legislation around domestic abuse for employers, many employers feel that they don’t need to be thinking about it.  It’s just not on their radar at all.

8. Other issues Employers are trying to work on eg mental health, equality and diversity, racism

One challenge we often see for an employer is the increasing amount of other concerns they have which are impacting on their staff. We’ve seen an enormous increase in employers taking on increased responsibility around their employees’ mental health and wellbeing but for some the impact on family caring responsibilities, menopause, inclusion and diversity, racism, disability discrimination dominates so much time already.  Domestic abuse, for many employers, just seems to be ‘another thing’ they have to worry about in already overwhelming areas that they start to feel responsibility around.

9. Employers or Senior Leaders may well have been affected or are experiencing it currently

Once we start to work with employers, we often see employers themselves and senior leaders or managers that have been or are impacted by domestic abuse which has created barriers in them wanting to deal with it amongst colleagues and staff.Someone that is experiencing domestic abuse or has never perhaps acknowledged that they experienced it previously or through their childhood often disassociates from that experience.  This makes it very difficult or uncomfortable for them in responding to the signs in someone else.Sometimes they want to try and ‘fix’ their colleagues’ situation which can be very dangerous when someone isn’t equipped to assess risk and need effectively.  An understanding or supportive Employer isn’t enough to mediate the complex risks and needs that occur around domestic abuse despite how well meaning that may be.

10. Cost and Delivery of Training or a Policy

At Alpha Vesta, we have always maintained that awareness, prevention and early intervention work around domestic abuse should be fully-funded. There are too many stereotypes, narratives, risks and needs that sit around domestic abuse which prevent employers from even seeing that they are impacted.  Unfortunately, the current climate doesn’t always allow this training and consultancy to be provided on a fully-funded basis.In addition, prevention work isn’t always delivered by the right organisations.  Some domestic abuse organisations only support women or only support men.  Their funding only allows them to raise awareness in certain areas for example around victims or around perpetrators.  Prevention work should always be delivered by domestic abuse experts that specialise in prevention and early intervention rather than those that directly support victims or perpetrators of abuse.  This ensures that there is no bias there and often training that has been undertaken by employers has been confusing as well as costly whilst only partially covering the issue and how they are impacted by it.Alpha Vesta was set up as a community interest company with specialist knowledge but also if any training or consultancy doesn’t fall within their full-funded services, they work with all employers to keep costs as low as possible to ensure that awareness around recognising the signs and responding reaches their whole workforce.

Reasons why Employers should get involved

This research has been focussed on the barriers we see for an employer in engaging with any awareness, training or policy development around domestic abuse for their employees.

We would like to finish the article on a positive note, by listing the huge advantages to breaking down these barriers and engaging in this area.

At a very fundamental basic level, engaging in awareness, training and policy development around domestic abuse will reduce the cost of repeated attendance and lateness across any workforce.  This cost currently stands at £316 million per year however it is felt that the actual costs are much higher if we incorporate many victims and survivors who have never disclosed the true reason as to their absence or lateness.

It’s very unlikely, when we consider that 1 in 5 adults have been affected by domestic abuse at some point during their adult lifetime, that engaging in this area won’t ‘touch’ areas of any workforce.  This results in increased productivity, staff wellbeing and morale and a workplace that finally ‘gets’ some of the complex issues that families may well be dealing with on a day-to-day basis.

Ongoing engagement will prevent job loss, poor career progression and high re-recruitment costs as a result of those job losses. Remember 1 in 10 victims of domestic abuse will have to leave employment due to the abuse they are experiencing (Vodafone, 2019).

Domestic Abuse doesn’t just affect the victim, it affects a whole workforce.  Research commissioned by The Vodafone Foundation and carried out by Opinium Market Research highlighted the ripple effect through an organisation where colleagues, team members and the broader organisation are impacted in complex ways.

Employers aren’t on their own with this.  Help, guidance and support is available and employers don’t have to take on a role provided by domestic abuse specialists.

‘Once employers understand that domestic abuse can impact on their workplace, their next fear is that they’re not equipped to address the issue. That’s absolutely true, but they’re not expected to be experts

Whilst we encourage employers, employees, volunteers and other staff to be educated around domestic abuse and its impact in the workplace, we do not want them to take on a role that should be filled by those professionally trained to help. Once employers understand this, it tends to ease much of their concern about what their role should be, and they move beyond the barrier to building that understanding and support across their workforce.

The journey really doesn’t have to be an overwhelming or complex process to put in place some very basic measures that will impact positively across a workforce.

Any engagement around domestic abuse also enhances an employer’s reputation as a socially responsible employer that cares about their workforce as well as their community.  Engagement enhances an organisation’s brand by associating with something that impacts 1 in 5 adults and 1 in 5 children.  It demonstrates strong organisational leadership as well as offers a direct impact on the community and future employees, customers and clients.

This just leaves one final question which we would pose to anyone reading this research article.  If you haven’t got that ball rolling, what’s stopping you?

Lucy Whittaker

Founding Director and Lead Trainer

Alpha Vesta CIC


References and Statistics

When Domestic Violence Comes to Work, Roy Maurer for SHRM, Better Workplaces; Better World (www.shrm.org)

ONS, 2020 (www.ons.gov.uk)

Vodafone and KPMG Study, 2019 (www.newscentre.vodafone.co.uk)

Corporate Alliance against Domestic Abuse (www.caadv.org.uk)

Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence (www.ncdsv.org)

Vodafone and Opinium Study, 2019 (www.forbes.com)

Domestic abuse in the workplace: an emerging issue in employment law (www.farrer.co.uk)

Statistics below produced by Alpha Vesta Ambassador, Fiona Bowman, based on April 2021 Govt Figures, UK.

On average, 1 in 5 adults are affected by domestic abuse at some point during their adult lifetime.  This tends to sit around 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men.  Based on these statistics, the following can be calculated:-

There were 31.2m people in employment as at April 2021.

There are 68.2m people living in the UK.

15.5m women are in employment (9.6m full-time)

15.7m men in employment (12.56 full-time)

3.9 million women in the workplace are or will become victims or survivors of domestic abuse

2.6 million men in the workplace are or will become victims or survivors of domestic abuse