How to spot the signs of domestic abuse at work

The way we work has changed drastically since the start of the pandemic. Many of us are adapting to working from home in the long-term while others are headed back into the office after a long time away.

For people experiencing domestic abuse, these changes in the way we work have been difficult to navigate. Those forced to work at home may have lost support networks and the opportunity to seek help. People now going back into the office may be worried about how the abuse they’re experiencing will affect their new work routine.

In either situation, it can be difficult to tell when a colleague or employee is experiencing domestic abuse. It is still very much a hidden crime, with many people continuing to endure domestic abuse and often not feeling able to get support from their employers.

But, with 2.3 million people experiencing domestic abuse every year in England and Wales, it’s highly likely that someone you work with or employ is or will experience domestic abuse at some point in their lifetime.

That’s why all of us, including employers, must know the signs and know how to respond effectively.

How can you tell someone is experiencing domestic abuse while working from home?

If your team are still working from home and everything is still virtual, it might feel impossible to tell when someone you’re working with is experiencing domestic abuse.

However, Alessia Bianco, Hestia’s Domestic Abuse Programme Manager, part of the Everyone’s Business programme, says that there can be signs to look out for, particularly while using Zoom, Skype or Teams.

“If someone seems anxious or worried, or if there's someone else who always walks into the room while they’re in meetings, or if someone never turns on their camera…we would just want employers to be curious about that, and talk to that person about it,” Alessia says.

Alessia says that another sign might be someone experiencing continual IT issues. She says that she has heard of instances where a perpetrator has broken their partner’s work equipment as a means of exerting control.

Of course, not all instances of broken IT equipment are red flags indicating domestic abuse. Employers should however be aware of potential patterns that emerge and keep an open mind.

“Be inquisitive, but be empathic,” Alessia says. “What might be unhelpful is to say, ‘we're noticing that you've gone through three different work devices, and we have a policy around misuse of IT equipment’, for example. That’s probably something your employee is going to be worried about.”

A perpetrator may be hoping that their partner is punished at work, or that they lose their job, as a way of controlling their financial status and independence.

You may also notice a change in their behaviour – they may take more sick days, or you may see a change in their productivity.

What about if you’re back in the office?

If you’re back in the office, there are other signs of domestic abuse that you might be able to spot. Some may be more obvious than others, for example bruising or physical marks.

Other signs, Alessia says, may be more subtle, such as changes in work patterns.

“Someone, now that they're back in the office, might indicate not wanting to go home. Because home for that person might not be a safe place,” she says. Alessia stresses that a workplace may be someone’s one safe haven, and you might notice that they refuse to take sick days even when unwell, or that they are always coming into work early or finishing late.

People experiencing domestic abuse may feel shame or embarrassment about their situation. While working from home, it may have been easier for them to disguise as they could avoid social interactions with work colleagues, or simply keep their video camera off during meetings.

“They might not want people to necessarily ask them lots of questions,” Alessia says. “Even quite normal questions like ‘how have you found being at home?’ would be really difficult if someone in that time had been experiencing domestic abuse.

“I think for some people there might be a fear that they are going to be ‘found out’ now that they’re back in an office environment.”

There may be a reluctance, then, to return to the office. Other signs might include a change in work performance or productivity, an increased number of sick days or lateness, changes in behaviour, or someone receiving an unusual amount of phone calls or messages throughout the day.

Everyone’s experiences are different

Alessia says that, while there are many potential signs of domestic abuse, everyone’s experiences are different.

“It is important to remember that some people enduring domestic abuse may not exhibit any of the signs mentioned,” she says. “Each person will have their own individual circumstances if they are enduring domestic abuse or being impacted in some way.”

Still, it’s vital that employers acknowledge that domestic abuse is a workplace issue and put provisions in place to support staff affected.

Why should employers care about domestic abuse?

According to a 2014 report by the Trades Union Congress, 40 per cent of people who have experienced domestic abuse said that it affected their ability to get to work. Four in five said that their experience of abuse affected their work productivity. More than three quarters of male perpetrators use work resources to check up on and harass their partners.

It’s clear that domestic abuse doesn’t stop affecting someone, or being perpetrated by someone, when they arrive at work. Therefore, it’s a workplace issue, likely affecting tens of thousands of companies across the UK.

Despite, this only 5 per cent of businesses have a specific domestic abuse policy.

“Whilst there are some companies that are leaders in this space, actually the majority of businesses in the UK are still seeing it as something that isn't really anything to do with them,” Alessia says.

Alessia adds that when companies don’t address domestic abuse directly, it creates a culture of silence that could be life-threatening. But when businesses do respond, it can be transformational.

“Once companies do start to have those conversations,” she says, “all of a sudden, companies say ‘there are many more employees than we ever thought who are experiencing domestic abuse’”.

How should employers or colleagues respond?

The first step is to create a culture of openness around domestic abuse, which is easier to do than it sounds.

This could include sharing information about local support services and national helplines via workplace channels such as emails, notice boards, Intranet sites and even on the back of toilet doors.

Companies could also create avenues for staff to disclose their experiences, as well as encourage all staff members to download and learn about the Bright Sky app, which can be used to respond appropriately if a colleague discloses abuse.

If your employees are still working from home, you could also offer them the opportunity to come into the office when they need to.

Wider cultural changes could include introducing a domestic abuse policy, designating staff as ‘domestic abuse champions’, or introducing paid leave, so that those needing to flee an abusive relationship have the time they need to prepare.

Employers needing advice on how to respond to disclosures of domestic abuse can also phone the free Respond to Abuse advice line or sign up to the Everyone’s Business programme to learn how they can change their workplace culture.

Alessia says that now could be the optimum time for businesses to address the issue.

“As people either continue to work from home, or start to go back into the office, employers have a space for action now. As we're changing our working environment anyway, employers should be revisiting the support they offer,” she says.

“Unfortunately, domestic abuse is not something that's going to go away in the next few months.”

Contact the Respond to Abuse Advice Line

Employers, managers and HR teams can contact the free and confidential Respond to Abuse Advice Line for information on how to respond to disclosures of domestic abuse.

The Respond to Abuse Advice Line is open Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm.

Call 0203 879 3695 or 0777 0480 437 or email [email protected]

Join the Everyone’s Business programme

Employers looking to take action against domestic abuse and support their employees can join Hestia’s Everyone’s Business programme, and learn how to effectively support employees who have experienced or who are at risk of experiencing domestic abuse.