The pandemic has seen a blurring of the traditional boundaries between home and work, and this has brought increased risks for victims of domestic abuse. For those living with an abuser, having to work at home brings a greater threat of abuse. Many victims of domestic abuse have often seen the physical workplace as a safe haven and place of respite from the ill-treatment they might be experiencing at home.
The increase in hybrid working has meant that the role of the employer in tackling abuse has never been so vital, and it raises the question of what responsible employers should do to make sure that the workplace is a safe place.
Research commissioned by the Vodafone Foundation in 2019 revealed that more than 1 in 3 (37%) working people surveyed across multiple industries, and at varying levels of seniority, have experienced domestic abuse at some point in their lives. In Ireland, Women’s Aid has reported a 43% increase in the number of people making contact with their domestic violence support services over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, as the lockdown restrictions have taken an “unprecedented and exhausting impact” on victims of domestic abuse. And, in September 2021, An Garda Síochána reported that they were dealing with almost 100 domestic abuse incidents across Ireland every single day.
The costs of domestic abuse to companies can be considerable. Safe Ireland, in their guide for employers, have noted how “the effects of living with abuse permeate every facet of a person’s life, including work”. The suffering of an abuse victim can have a direct effect on an employer in terms of absenteeism and reduced productivity. In the Vodafone Foundation’s research, two-thirds (67%) of victims have said that domestic abuse affected their careers, while 1 in 2 (56%) of victims stated that the abuse they had suffered had also affected their co-workers. There is also a potential reputational effect for the employer; having effective workplace policies on abuse can help to retain your staff – particularly women workers – and enhance your reputation as a responsible employer.
It is clear that domestic abuse can no longer be dismissed as ‘a private matter behind closed doors’, and that employer’s duty of care to their staff means that companies have a pivotal position in demonstrating that such abuse will not be tolerated in society. Yet, despite their important role, research from our sister organisation Business in the Community UK has shown that as few as 5% of companies surveyed have developed specific guidelines or policies on domestic abuse.
What is the role of the employer on this critical issue? Irish health and safety legislation places an onus on businesses to provide workers with a safe working environment where employee wellbeing is recognised as an important consideration.
This is not about asking employers to take on a specialist role as counsellors or healthcare workers in terms of dealing with domestic abuse; however, there is a definite role that employers can fulfill not just by supporting their staff in these situations, but also in terms of breaking the stigma around domestic abuse. Companies can do this by developing robust workplace policies and by aligning with charities and organisations who offer specialised support to domestic abuse victims.
Vodafone Ireland are one organisation who have taken a proactive stand on this issue. In 2019, Vodafone Ireland launched their Domestic Violence policy. As Aoife Mulqueen, Talent and Development Partner at Vodafone Ireland, says: “Since then we have gained momentum in using our platform to talk about this grave social issue”. Key to Vodafone’s response has been “continuing to educate our people and working with Women’s Aid to raise awareness both inside our organisation and externally”.
When Vodafone Ireland were designing their Domestic Violence Company Policy, getting the buy-in of their senior leaders was important. This support from management meant Vodafone were able to draft a policy that provided a generous leave allowance of 10 working days in addition to annual leave, among other supports.
As part of the implementation of the Domestic Violence policy, Vodafone Ireland partnered with Women’s Aid. Aoife Mulqueen from Vodafone notes how “Women’s Aid were instrumental to the success of our roll out of our policy”, as Women’s Aid were able to design and deliver training to Vodafone’s People Manager Community, and so empowering them to support victims of abuse.
Following the launch of their policy and training, Vodafone Ireland also launched the BrightSky Ireland app in collaboration with Hestia, Women’s Aid, and the Garda Síochána. BrightSky Ireland is a covert app designed to help women and men find information about different forms of abuse, and it also helps those who suspect someone they know is suffering from domestic abuse.
Since the start of the pandemic (and the subsequent rise in reports of domestic violence), Vodafone Ireland have partnered with Women’s Aid on several campaigns and have provided emergency funding. As Irish companies move to a new hybrid model of working, Aoife Mulqueen, Vodafone states that “it continues to be important to us to keep this work on domestic violence alive, and we will continue to train new people managers in our organisations and to speak externally on the subject”.
Business in the Community Ireland have developed a resources pack that lists organisations who are leading experts on the issue of domestic abuse and who your company might potentially partner with. This resource pack also lists toolkits and guides which your company will find useful when drafting your own workplace policies, and which will empower you to open up conversations within your own companies about acting on domestic abuse.
The pandemic lockdowns have brought a renewed focus on how we all need to be attentive to the mental health of our colleagues. This has broken down much of the stigma that previously existed around discussing mental health and wellbeing, and we are now seeing more open conversations about those issues. A similar focus now needs to happen around removing the stigma around discussing – and seeking support around – domestic abuse – and Irish employers have a crucial role in tackling this culture of silence.
If you are a member, please contact your BITCI Adviser if you would like to receive more information and support on this topic.