Domestic violence – not just a domestic issue
Domestic violence may happen behind closed doors but it has far reaching consequences beyond the home and often has a significant impact on the working lives of those (the majority of whom are women) living with an abusive partner. The scale of the problem is huge. In the UK, in any one year, more than 20% of employed women take time off work because of domestic abuse, and 2% lose their jobs as a direct result of the abuse.
A Home Office report in 2009 found that 20% of victims of domestic abuse had to take a month or more off work in the previous year due to the abuse. Other research has found that 56% of abused women arrive late for work at least five times a month and 53% miss at least three days of work a month.
The TUC undertook its own research into this issue earlier this year. Inspired by an Australian trade union project Safe at Home, Safe at Work, which had identified and highlighted the scale of the problem and then used this information to bargain for up to 20 days of paid leave for workers experiencing domestic violence, the TUC carried out a similar survey.
While the findings didn’t tell us anything about the prevalence of domestic violence, as the respondents were self selecting, it did tell us how the violence affects working lives. Unsurprisingly, much of it supported existing evidence about the impact of domestic violence on performance and attendance.
The findings are both interesting and depressing. In fact, “depressing” doesn’t quite cover it. Some of the stories glimpsed through the data and the open ended comments are truly heart breaking. Stories of women forced out of their jobs because the perpetrator of abuse is employed in the same workplace and their manager doesn’t believe them. Or women who have found themselves on disciplinary proceedings because of the time they’ve taken off due to the abuse.
Here are the key findings that really opened my eyes to the impact of domestic violence on the workplace:
1. Abuse stops women from getting to work
Of those who had experienced domestic violence, over forty per cent said it had affected their ability to get to work. For nearly three quarters of those who had trouble getting to work, this was due to physical injury or restraint. For another quarter, it was due to car keys or money for public transport being hidden or stolen by their abuser.
2. Abuse carries on at work
Over one in ten of those who experienced domestic violence reported that the violence continued in the work place. In most cases (81%) this was through harassing or abusive emails or phone calls. But for nearly half of those who reported that the abuse continued at work, the abuse took the form of their abusive partner physically turning up at their workplace or stalking them outside their workplace.
Ninety per cent of respondents who had experienced domestic violence reported that the violence had caused conflict and tension with colleagues and a quarter of respondents reported that their colleagues were harmed or threatened.
3. Too few people experiencing domestic violence talk to their union or even their colleagues about what’s going on.
One of the striking findings from the survey was how rarely those experiencing domestic violence disclosed to anyone at work. Fewer than one in three of those experiencing domestic violence discussed the violence with anyone at work and less than 10% told their union rep what was going on. Interestingly, another third said they hadn’t told anyone but they believed their colleagues knew anyway. The main reasons for not disclosing were “shame” and “privacy”.
4. And when they do tell someone, all too often, nothing good comes of it
While this is not surprising in itself, given the stigma attached to domestic violence and the shame often experienced by those who experience it, it is surprising and worrying how few people felt that disclosing had led to anything positive happening. Of those who told someone at work what was going on, over half said that “nothing really changed” as a result of disclosing and for four per cent, telling someone at work made things worse.
So why does it matter if domestic violence spills over into the workplace?
Well, I’m not going to tell you about the business case. I won’t attempt to quantify the monetary benefit to employers of putting in place policies that support and protect their employees. Other people have done those sums. Apparently employers like to see the business case. Hard figures totted up to balance the cost of allowing someone a bit of leave to see a solicitor or to seek medical help against the benefit of… what? The benefit isn’t just about staff loyalty, reduced turnover, and higher productivity. It’s about saving lives. It may sound melodramatic but for too many women it’s a reality. For many women experiencing violence, work is a lifeline. It’s a safe haven away from the abuse. It’s an income.
High profile cases such as the shooting of Clare Bernal in 2005 by her ex-boyfriend (also an employee in the same workplace) while she was at work or Hollie Gazzard who was murdered earlier this year by her abusive partner at her place of work in front of her customers and passers-by, are reminders of the real cost to society of failing to take domestic violence seriously.
Download TUC Survey Report – Domestic Violence and the workplace [PDF]