29 October 2020

HR support for victims of domestic abuse

With the pandemic shining a light on domestic abuse, here’s what HR should be doing to support its employees


Maryam Munir

Maryam Munir

Maryam Munir worked as a content marketing writer at Ciphr from 2019 to 2021.


Health and wellbeing Performance


With the pandemic shining a light on domestic abuse, here’s what HR should be doing to support its employees

During the pandemic, the UK has seen a rise in the number of domestic abuse cases – crisis support charity Hestia reported a 47% increase in the number of victims looking for information and support through its dedicated app, and in April the National Domestic Abuse helpline reported a 25% increase in the number of calls it received since lockdown began.

“We all understand that domestic abuse is harmful, not only physically, but mentally, and that if you are suffering then it will undoubtedly impact not only your internal wellbeing, but also your interaction with friends and family,” says Paula Rhone-Adrien, a leading family law barrister.

However, she adds: “employers also need to consider how domestic abuse impacts on the valuable resource that is human productivity; how domestic abuse stifles the sufferer and his/her ability to innovative and/or focus on the relevant task and how it will ultimately impact their ability to be a proactive member of staff.”

Domestic abuse can have a significant impact on both a victim’s personal and professional life, so how can HR support employees who may be victims of domestic abuse?

Create a warm and friendly workplace culture

An open and friendly workplace culture is crucial if HR wants its employees to be able to come forward and talk to them.

Ciphr’s head of HR, Gwenan West, says: “how you create workplace culture is just how you live and breathe things. Everyone in the organisation should be open with one another – if senior leadership are closed off and don’t share anything personal, then that’s not going to encourage anybody else within the business to share and talk about their home life.”

With many of us still working remotely, the Employers’ Initiative on Domestic Abuse has been urging all employers to keep in touch with employees who may be facing abuse at this already difficult time. To maintain this communication, West says HR and managers have to work closely together.

“When working from home, HR is reliant on managers picking up on things as well. If we’re in an office environment, we can see things better but if we’re all sitting in our own homes, it’s a lot more difficult, so it’s all about trying to find ways of making contact with people without them thinking that we’re just checking up on them.

“Where it becomes difficult is that the people who are suffering from low confidence – as a result of the abuse they’ve suffered – are not the type of people that will want to take part in a video call, so HR and managers have to figure out which employees are not engaging and finding out why that is.”

West adds that listening to employees is an important part of creating a supportive workplace culture.

“When speaking to an employee who is suffering from domestic abuse, HR has to figure out whether that employee just wants somebody to listen to them, or whether they actually want somebody to advise and help them.”

Refer employees to the appropriate help

The EHRC and CIPD guide on how employers can support employees experiencing domestic abuse states that employers can provide support by putting up domestic abuse helpline posters around the office, and by having a list of the support services offered in your area that are easily accessible.

HR teams should refer employees to appropriate organisations that deal with domestic abuse. Independent domestic violence advocates (IDVA) like Refuge provide one-to-one direct support, offering confidential, practical and impartial advice on domestic abuse, child matters, safety, housing, legal options and financial support, and guide individuals towards the support available.

Family law barrister Adrien says: “organisations could hold training sessions that cover topics such as mindfulness, stress triggers and what happens to people when they are unable to cope, focusing on workplace relationships. Such workshops should include helpline numbers and details for domestic abuse support.”

While Adrien also adds that there should be a designated HR officer who become the point of call for victims of domestic abuse, West says that mental health first aiders and employee assistance programs are the appropriate source of help.

“The best way for HR to support victims is to ensure that your organisation has at least a handful of trained mental health first aiders. These first aiders can listen to employees and refer them to the relevant support services so that employees have a clear pathway to getting the best help.

“HR should also make sure there’s an employee assistance programme (EAP) in place so that employees have someone to talk to confidentially even if they don’t want to talk to HR.”

Increase workplace knowledge about domestic abuse

Lockdown during the pandemic resulted in an increased awareness of domestic violence, but West says, “we still don’t know enough about domestic abuse.”

“We talk about mental health a lot in the workplace, we talk about long term sicknesses and disabilities, but things like domestic abuse are hidden topics because people don’t want to admit they are victims, and some people don’t even realise that they are victims of domestic abuse.”

In order for HR to support its employees, the entire organisation has to be knowledgeable about domestic violence and the signs to look out for.

“What we need to be doing is educating the workforce – starting from senior leadership – so that they know what to look out for if an employee is asking for help. Hand signs can be given by victims of domestic abuse but if managers or colleagues don’t know what the hand sign means, the call for help could be ignored,” says West.

Adrien adds: “developing policies on domestic abuse, raising awareness among employees, training senior staff, managers and ambassadors on how to identify those who may need help, and offering direct help or signposting to where it can be found, can all increase awareness of domestic violence.”

While policies can outline an organisations stance on domestic violence, West says that policies alone cannot support employees.

“It’s really difficult to write a policy on how we can support people – it’s more of a cultural thing. It’s more about having mechanisms in place to support people.

“It’s not about putting a policy in place, but rather about making sure that the policies that we do have in place don’t discriminate against any victims of domestic abuse. If a victim was absent from work multiple times, we don’t want our policies to discriminate against them for the days off. Instead, HR should focus on talking to its employees to find out the cause for the high absence rates – and the company policies should encourage a space for these conversations.”