There’s an epidemic in Australia, and despite past efforts, the number of those affected by domestic violence continues to rise. Astonishingly, domestic violence is the number one non-disease related cause of disability, injury and death for women between the ages of 15 and 44. Too often, domestic violence follows those experiencing it through all facets of their life, and work is no exception.
Some of the most recent national statistics on domestic violence come from the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ 2012 Personal Safety Survey. The numbers tell a sad tale about the state of partner violence in Australia – a problem that shows no signs of abating.
An estimated 17 per cent of all women aged 15 and over have experienced violence from a current or former partner. While women are more likely to be on the receiving end of intimate violence, the same study found that 5.3 per cent of men aged 15 and over have experienced violence by a partner. This amounts to 1.5 million women and 450,000 men. What’s worse, though, is that by conservative estimates, 82 per cent of cases go unreported.
If these statistics shock you, they should – behind each one of these numbers is a friend, family member or colleague who is experiencing or has experienced domestic violence. And though there is widespread condemnation, many workplaces shy away from becoming involved in what’s perceived as a personal matter.
“What affects employees affects employers,” says Elizabeth Broderick, former Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner. “The number of women who are experiencing domestic violence is a significant portion of the population, and it takes all of us across all sectors to remove this blight.”
We spend 40 plus hours of our week at work, which makes employers and colleagues uniquely positioned to recognise the signs of domestic violence and the behaviours of perpetrators.
“The workplace is an extension of the community – of a person’s community,” says Jessica Luter, a workplace programs manager with White Ribbon Australia. “They are an additional support network, so it’s important that workplaces understand their role in influencing respectful behaviours and giving those experiencing domestic violence help and options.”
Multiple studies have documented the critical function of paid work in providing economic support for those experiencing domestic violence, allowing some to get help or move on. At the same time, the costs to businesses from domestic violence are felt across all functions.
An estimated $14 billion is lost every year from reduced productivity, absenteeism, low morale and safety issues caused by domestic violence, according to research conducted by White Ribbon. That’s roughly 1.1 per cent of Australia’s GDP.
“It’s within an organisation’s best interest to address domestic violence,” says Luter. “People who are living with domestic violence are subjected to all kinds of abuse, which diminishes their self-confidence at home and in the workplace.”
Leadership is important in setting the tone for how the business will address incidences of domestic violence, and Broderick says that employers need to communicate clearly with staff about why domestic violence is a workplace issue. She recommends that personal safety information be incorporated into other aspects of workplace health and safety training to embed anti-domestic violence policies into workplace culture. Additionally, domestic violence comes from gender inequality, so any initiatives that reduce gender gaps will reduce gender violence, she says.
There are many other ways employers can help those affected by domestic violence to be safe and feel supported. Paid leave is just one option. Several large employers such as Telstra, NAB and Kmart already offer employees domestic violence leave entitlements, and the Victorian government is set to follow suit once family violence leave policies for public sector employees are enacted later this year.
There is still an element of shame associated with domestic violence, says Karen Dynon from Engage to Change, an initiative of McAuley Community Services for Women, so HR departments need to encourage people to be what she terms ‘active bystanders’.
“The key is being able to ask ‘Are you ok?’,” she says. “People are often hesitant to get involved, but if you can just ask that question, and still be sensitive, that could be what changes the conversation.”
There are obvious physical signs of domestic violence, such as bruising, broken bones or cuts, but some conduct can be just as revealing.
“Employers need to understand the prevalence of domestic violence so they can recognise its nature and consequences,” says Broderick. For example, hallmarks of an unreliable employee (arriving late, consistently calling in sick) are also signs of an employee who might be experiencing abuse. “HR departments need to look behind that initial picture to understand what is really going on,” she says.
Those going through abuse might be hesitant to seek help from managers or co-workers, so businesses and leadership need to be proactive about education and personal safety programs. HR departments are not social workers, but a zero-tolerance policy, guaranteed confidentiality and non-judgemental attitudes are the best ways to make employees comfortable with discussing this issue. A strong referral network is next in priority to provide employees with resources and assistance pathways.
“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.”
Both White Ribbon and Engage to Change conduct workplace education programs to help organisations create and implement anti-domestic violence policies, and White Ribbon has an anti-domestic violence business accreditation program, the first of its kind in Australia. Ultimately, it’s a culture change, and any steps a business can take to create a zero-tolerance environment go a long way towards promoting awareness and changing behaviours.
“People need to stand up in the workplace if they see an incident or signs of injury in a colleague,” says Luter. “Domestic violence is not just a human rights issue; it’s a workplace issue. Perpetrators need to know that it’s not funny, that people won’t just brush it off or ignore it and that someone in the office will speak up.”