“You need to leave. Today.”
I said goodbye to my therapist, went home, packed one suitcase and put my four children in our car. I then drove for three hours to my parent’s house.
Before I made the decision to leave, I called my supervisor. I just wanted to know if I was safe in my job. Could I end up unemployed because I was about to enter one of the hardest and most unstable periods of my life? I was so afraid that day that I don’t remember much of our conversation. But I know that he stopped me at one point and said:
“Make sure you and your children are safe and let me know when that happens. We are here to help you”.
Not only did he believe me implicitly but he was there. Supportive. I can testify today, two years later, that he meant every word of that. My own experience has shown me that brands and agencies have the power to change the lives of people that are dealing with abuse in how they respond when a victim decides to speak up.
I believe the importance of supportive employers will only increase as the rates of domestic abuse skyrocket. Before Covid-19, an estimated one in four women and one in six men experience abuse in their lifetime. Rates have further worsened with the pandemic, to the point where it’s been labelled ‘an epidemic beneath a pandemic’. National lockdowns have meant we have all spent more time at home. Unemployment, financial insecurity, anxiety and stress have also been rife; conditions known to aggravate domestic violence. Refuge, the UK’s largest domestic abuse helpline, reported a 60% increase in messages and calls between April 2020 and February 2021.
Civic organisations and the Government have sounded the alarm. Both have singled out businesses for not doing enough to burst the stigma and act as a bridge between victims and support services.
Business minister Paul Scully has criticised companies in an open letter to employers. They “have a duty” to support staff who suffer domestic abuse but few companies have adequate policies in place, he said.
“Colleagues and managers are often the only other people outside the home that survivors talk to each day and are therefore uniquely placed to help spot the signs”.
Elizabeth Filkin, Chair of the Employers’ Initiative on Domestic Abuse, welcomed Scully’s statement:
“Only through greater awareness among employers and staff of the damage done by domestic abuse and sharing employer best practice can we make a systemic change to the way domestic abuse is thought about and handled in the UK.”
In the face of these rallying cries from the Government and civic society, what steps should businesses take to help their workers facing domestic abuse? Here are ten practical measures that could save lives.
- Trust. According to studies, fewer than one in three victims disclose the abuse at work, citing ‘shame’ and ‘privacy’ as barriers. Proactively create a culture of trust and empathy where employees feel like they can trust that your company is a safe place to come forward and share personal issues. You can, for example, have a clear, no-tolerance company policy on the issue. It is also a good idea to encourage workplace champions to talk about their own experiences, in order to burst the stigma and encourage conversation.
- Empathy. Check-in with victims of abuse. Offer to take some of the workloads off their shoulders for a while if necessary. Validate their feelings and offer encouragement on hard days. One of the life-changing moments for me was when my therapist said “I want to validate every feeling you just shared. You have every right to feel that way”. Such simple words might just be what victims need to hear to speak up and leave an abusive situation.
- Training. Introduce awareness training so staff can spot the red flags of those experiencing domestic abuse. Workshops are a good way to draw attention to the issue and outline the help that the company can offer. That way colleagues can respond appropriately and sympathetically when the situation arises. Just make sure HR doesn’t go at it alone. Include representatives from all company departments as well as the uppermost levels of the firm to confirm legitimacy on the training.
- Confidentiality. Some victims might want to share more and with more people, others won’t. Respect how they feel about sharing their story but always provide access to internal confidential support.
- Flexibility. Allow flexible working, sick leave and other supportive measures to lighten the working load for those facing domestic abuse.
- Get expert help. Establish contact with external organisations. That way the company can get specialist support in tackling domestic abuse. The charity Hestia, for instance, has created the Everyone’s Business programme to increase awareness and support in the workplace. It offers online webinars and a business tool kit. It is also good to have the Government’s business tool kit pamphlet distributed and read across your organisation.
- Accountability. Make sure your employee is getting the help they need. This can be contacting the police, help organisations, therapists or specific victim support groups.
- Preemptively prepare support materials. It’s great if the company has prepared a pamphlet with all support networks and their contacts collected in one place, as the company can then easily direct the employee to get the help they need.
- Make support tools available to all employees as part of their work materials. You can, for example, host links to support services on your intranet or ask staff to download the Bright Sky app so resources are easily accessible. It is also a good idea to make sure every employee working from home has contact with at least one colleague to reduce isolation.
- Do not frame abuse as a straight women’s issue. You risk overlooking the diversity of victims of domestic abuse. Build relationships with a wide range of support organisations. That way you can best meet the needs of the individual, including those representing minority groups such as LGBT+, disabled staff or male victims of domestic abuse.
These measures are powerful. They can literally save lives. My job did. I have said this numerous times and will continue to do so: my employer saved me and my children’s lives. The company culture that we have keeps giving me the tools to manage work, life, and dealing with the effects of trauma.
No matter what your brand or agency does, you too can save lives. It all starts with ten easy steps and a bit of willpower.
Further information and support
If you, or someone you know, have been affected by domestic abuse or violence, the following organisations may be able to help. If you are in immediate danger, you should dial 999.
If you’re a child and in a situation where you may be experiencing domestic abuse, Childline can offer some advice or support via their free, 24-hour confidential helpline for children and young people who need to talk.
Phone: 0800 1111
The National Domestic Abuse Helpline
The 24 hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline, run by Refuge is for women experiencing domestic abuse, their family, friends and others calling on their behalf.
Phone: 0808 2000 247
The 24 Hour Domestic & Sexual Violence Helpline (Northern Ireland)
The 24 Hour Domestic & Sexual Violence Helpline (Northern Ireland) offers referral to a range of services to all women, men and children affected by domestic & sexual violence.
Phone: 0808 802 1414
Scotland’s Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline
Scotland’s Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline offers telephone information and support to anyone affected by domestic abuse or forced marriage.
Phone: 0800 027 1234 (24/7)
Live Fear Free Helpline
Live Fear Free Helpline is a confidential, signposting and information service for anyone experiencing domestic abuse and/or sexual violence in Wales.
Phone: 0808 80 10 800 (24 hours a day)
Refuge provides safe, emergency accommodation and emotional and practical support to women and children experiencing domestic abuse.
Women’s Aid provides practical support and information for women experiencing domestic violence via the Survivor’s Handbook and local domestic violence services.
Men’s Advice Line
Men’s Advice Line is a confidential service for male victims of domestic abuse offering support help men keep themselves (and their children) safe.
Phone: 0808 801 0327
Abused Men in Scotland
Abused Men in Scotland supports men who are, or have experienced, domestic abuse.
Phone: 03300 949 395
The ManKind Initiative
The ManKind Initiative provides confidential help and support for male victims of domestic abuse and domestic violence.
Phone: 01823 334244 (Mon-Fri 10am-4pm)
National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans Domestic Violence helpline
National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans Domestic Violence helpline run by Galop, provides support to LGBT people suffering domestic abuse.
Phone: 0800 999 5428