Family and domestic violence increases during nationwide lockdowns. How can workplaces support staff who experience it behind closed, and locked, doors?
This article discusses domestic and family violence and may be triggering or distressing to some readers. If you’re in a position where you need support, you can call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) or visit White Ribbon Australia for more information.
For many of us, after the government ordered us to “stay home”, we felt disgruntled, but we understood the importance of doing so. However, those same words sent chills down the spines of many people. For them, their homes are the least safe places on Earth.
Every single week in Australia, a woman is killed by a violent partner. One in six girls and one in nine boys have experienced physical or sexual abuse before the age of 15, with parents being the most common perpetrators. These were the statistics from before our nation was shut down due to COVID-19.
And while women and children are disproportionately represented in the total number of family and domestic violence deaths in this country, it’s important to acknowledge the one in 13 men who experience domestic violence from an intimate partner and the one man each month who loses his life as a result.
Now that we’re all being called upon to stay inside our homes for a long but indeterminate period of time, the numbers of people affected by family and domestic violence are likely to grow.
Family and domestic violence, or intimate terrorism, as some prefer to call it, increases when families are spending more time together. It increases around the holiday periods, for example. We’re already seeing spikes in the number of cases due to government imposed isolation.
COVID-19 is making abuse more common
Since the beginning of the pandemic reports of financial, emotional and physical abuse have increased. Troublingly, perpetrators are using the spectre of the virus itself as a tool.
According to a report from VICE, the US National Domestic Violence Hotline has found abusers are withholding necessary items, like hand sanitizer and soap, from their partners. They are also lying about government restrictions in an effort to scare their partners into remaining home.
Writing for The Conversation, journalist Amanda Gearing shared a horrifying response to her domestic violence research questionnaire from a woman whose ex-partner has attempted to murder her twice. Under Family Court orders, she is required to see him every week to give him access to their child. The response read:
“I’m trying to work out what to do before I end up in a body bag but that seems unavoidable right now.”
Gearing writes, “Every other person I have surveyed in the past four weeks has reported living in fear for their life – a fear exacerbated enormously under coronavirus isolation regulations.”
She says there is no time to form evidence-based policy to prevent increases in violent deaths during COVID-19 isolation periods. We need to act now. Lives are at stake.
She suggests following in the UK’s footsteps by criminalising coercive control, which experts from Deakin University describe as “a collection of behaviours designed to strip someone of their sense of autonomy and self-worth”.
The Australian government is taking this issue seriously. It has announced a $150 million domestic violence package to bolster frontline services, technology-based support methods, safer housing, counselling services and crisis support.
A global problem
Like the virus itself, this is impacting people all over the world.
In China, where the virus originated, it’s reported that one domestic violence abuse hotline experienced more than three times as many calls in February 2020 than it had in February 2019.
The New York Times reported on a particularly devastating story from China. A woman was beaten by her partner with a high-chair as she cradled her infant child. She says while her partner has been violent towards her in the past, things have become “far worse” during the COVID-19 outbreak. Finding emergency housing and filing for divorce have proven difficult during lockdown. It is believed that both the woman and the child are still living with the abuser.
The same article states that in Spain the emergency number for domestic violence received 18 per cent more calls in the first two weeks of lockdown compared to the previous month. It also reported that French police have recorded about a 30 per cent increase in domestic violence across the nation.
In the UK, the largest domestic abuse charity has received a 25 per cent increase in calls to its helpline since isolation came into force. In a moment that illustrates just how devastating the crisis is, BBC journalist Victoria Derbyshire presented the news with the number to the UK’s national abuse hotline written on her hand for the domestic abuse survivors watching on at home.
In Italy, the nation’s largest domestic violence helpline says calls have dropped by 55 per cent. This is not good news, the suggested reason is that people don’t feel safe to make these calls while isolated at home.
Last week, United Nations secretary general António Guterres urged global leaders to put domestic violence on their radars when planning for COVID-19 impacts. Workplaces should do the same.
“Violence is not confined to the battlefields,” he said. “For many women and girls, the threat is largest where they should be safest: in their own homes.”
What should workplaces be doing?
First and foremost, employers, HR and managers can learn the common signs of family and domestic violence. That can be much harder to determine in a virtual workplace, but HRM has sourced various signs you should look for:
- Signs of physical harm palmed off as ‘accidents’, such as bruises, broken bones and scarring (source: FACS). In a virtual world, if an employee is suddenly hesitant to use video chat functions, it might be worth reaching out by other means to find out why.
- Inappropriate clothing for season. Turtlenecks in hot weather, for example (source: Make it our business).
- Constantly arriving late/calling in sick (source: Make it our business).
- A change in job performance, such as more errors, slowness, or inconsistent quality of work (source: Make it our business).
- They seem anxious, or afraid of, or overly eager to please their partner (source: FACS).
- The person stops calls when a partner enters the room (source: FACS).
- They cancel plans at the last minute (source: FACS).
- Their partner seems overly attentive and often appears by their side (source: FACS)
- The individual appears to be more depressed, frightened, exhausted or quiet than usual, or has lost their confidence (source: FACS).
- Person says their partner wants them to leave their job (source: FACS).
- They seem to lack access to money (source: Make it our business).
- They demonstrate a reluctance to leave work (source: Make it our business).
- Their partner is publicly ridiculing them, for example on social media (source: FACS).
Employers also need to have the right resources and support services available to pass onto affected staff members. Have this information ready to go; don’t wait for someone to speak up. Of course, if you’re worried for the safety of an employee, call emergency services immediately.
White Ribbon and FACS offer this advice for those who need to support someone in an abusive relationship:
- Believe them and make sure they understand it’s not their fault
- Listen without judgement
- Be supportive, encouraging and open
- Offer them help from a support service or encourage them to call 1800 RESPECT
- Offer to go with the person to attend their support services
- Keep in touch with them regularly
- Encourage them to keep a written record of the events (and to keep the record hidden in a safe place)
- Encourage them to make a safety plan, including emergency contacts and a hidden suitcase with money, clothes, Centrelink cards, and other important documents.
(You can visit the Family and Community Support (FACS) website for more information on how to support those experiencing domestic violence).
If you call a staff member with a potential or confirmed experience of violence and a partner answers the phone, don’t tell them you are calling about family violence. Even if the individual answers the phone themselves, start by asking if they’re in a safe environment to talk in a way that allows them to answer with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
In a previous article on domestic violence in the workplace, HRM wrote that “a zero-tolerance policy, guaranteed confidentiality and non-judgemental attitudes are the best ways to make employees comfortable with discussing this issue.”
In this article, HRM spoke with Karen Dynon of Engage to Change.She said it is HR’s role to encourage other employees to be active bystanders in order to remove the shame many survivors feel about their situation. They can do this by encouraging people to ask each other, “Are you okay?”
“Ultimately, you’re not there to solve domestic violence,” says Dynon. “But if you have early intervention and an open door policy, you can then point employees in the right direction.”
HR professionals should remind staff of the five days of unpaid domestic violence leave they’re entitled to, which came into effect in August 2018. Individual employers are able to go beyond the national minimum and offer more and paid domestic violence leave for staff. Now more than ever, this would be a good idea.
If you’re in a position where you need support, you can call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) or visit White Ribbon Australia for more information.