Domestic abuse occurs across the world, indiscriminate of culture, gender, or sexual orientation.
Refuge charity in the UK said it recorded a 66% increase in calls to the National Domestic Abuse helpline over a three-week period during the Covid-19 lockdown, with a 957% increase in web traffic during the height of the pandemic. And it’s not purely women who are victims of domestic abuse male victims of abuse have also been calling for help in greater numbers, the charity reported.
During the health crisis, countless people have become unemployed globally or faced salary reductions. Most all of us have faced uncertainty, stress and worry about the economic, social and physical wellbeing of ourselves and our loved ones.
The lockdown and restrictions itself do not cause domestic abuse, but Refuge charity says that it can aggravate pre-existing behaviours in an abusive partner:
- There is never any excuse for domestic abuse, but stress and loss of income is associated with higher incidence levels
- Isolation is a key part of domestic abuse and is reinforced by restrictions which limit a victim’s ability to leave home to go to the workplace or visit family
- A perpetrator and victim are more likely to spend more time together, so there is an opportunity to take greater control over the victim’s life. For example, by preventing the victim having virtual contact with others
- Always being home leads to lack of privacy. So victims are more vulnerable as they are less able to use electronic devices to ask for support from family or support lines. Victims feel too scared to file a report with the police or are unable to find a safe way to do so
- Covid-19 is already causing people to feel emotionally drained. For abuse victims it is even harder to take action – breaking free requires extraordinary amounts of emotional and physical energy as well as money
For these reasons, the significant increase in incidences of domestic abuse which have been reported since the start of the Covid-19 health crisis are unfortunately not surprising.
Understanding domestic violence
Toby D. Goldsmith MD explains in Psychcentral that abuse often happens when one partner feels the need to control and dominate the other. This can be as a result of low self-esteem, jealousy, feeling inferior in education or socioeconomic background or having difficulties regulating anger and strong emotions. Abusers learn violent behaviour from their family, people in their community and other cultural influences as they grow up.
In the majority of cases the perpetrators of abuse are a partner or ex-partner, but it can also be a family member or carer.
Two million people in the UK suffer some form of domestic abuse every year and it’s estimated that more than ten million people experience domestic abuse in the U.S. annually. Abuse takes a number of forms, most commonly including physical, verbal, emotional, psychological, economic and sexual abuse.
We commonly associate domestic abuse with physical abuse, which is easier to recognise in other people—and in our own relationships. And when abuse is visible, it’s easier to offer victims support toward.
But the majority forms of domestic abuse are invisible to family, friends and colleagues—and us. Which is why it’s so important for societies and workplaces to educate, raise awareness and create support and refuge systems for all forms of abuse–and all potential victims.
With non-physical forms of abuse, people often don’t understand when it’s happening to them. And as such, verbal, emotional, economic and psychological abuses can go undetected, and people don’t get support they need. This also takes a toll on our mental health.
Men as victims of domestic violence
In the UK alone, there are 600,000 male victims and 1.3 million female victims of domestic abuse. And one in six men and one in four women will suffer from domestic abuse in their lifetime. While women are at a higher risk of domestic abuse than men, it’s imperative to recognise a significant number of men also fall victim.
Mankind revealed that less than one per cent of men have experienced physical abuse from their partner. And male victims (39%) are over three times as likely as women (12%) not to tell anyone about the partner abuse they are suffering from.
There is a social stigma that exists about men and abuse, which is resulting in less men recognising they’re suffering, and less men seeking support or refuge.
Men are more likely to suffer from verbal, emotional, economic and psychological abuse, which takes a toll on mental health. Mankind reported that 30% of men who suffer partner abuse also experience emotional and mental problems.
Men are almost always silent, invisible victims. So, for societies and workplaces looking to create domestic abuse support strategies, they should also be focusing on breaking the stigma associated with men seeking help.
Workplaces are increasingly adding domestic abuse support to their HR policies
City Mental Health Alliance (CMHA)–a global business-led alliance which aims to create a culture of good mental health for workers, share best practice and increase mental health understanding–has engaged with its members around the issue of domestic abuse.
CMHA says that forward-thinking businesses have already recognised domestic abuse is a workplace wellbeing issue and are taking positive steps to support employees who may be victims.
During this pandemic, CMHA reminds us, employers have an ever more pronounced opportunity to be a support for someone experiencing domestic abuse. For many victims, both those who are remote working or going to the workplace, employers are their main point of contact with the outside world. In some cases, they may be the only contact they are permitted to have.
SafeLives, a UK-wide charity dedicated to ending domestic abuse, has created guidance for employers highlighting what they can do to support employees who are not safe at home.
It includes clear advice for both employers and line managers about how to create a culture where people feel comfortable to talk about their abuse, what signs to look out for and what employers, and colleagues, can do in response.
Starting a conversation
CMHA offers advice on what to do if you suspect that someone you work with (either a man or a woman) is impacted by domestic abuse. It can be difficult to know how to start a conversation, so don’t feel that conversations need to centre on the domestic abuse itself. If you are worried about someone, ask some simple questions and then leave sufficient space for them to answer. For example:
- Are you feeling safe at home? Are you feeling comfortable at home?
- Your wellbeing is important to me and I have noticed you seem distracted/upset at the moment – are you okay? Do you feel unsafe or uncomfortable at all?
- You don’t need to tell me anything but please know I am there to support you if and when you are ready
- If they tell you something that doesn’t feel right, ask questions such as ‘How do you experience or feel about this?’
- Follow with questions such as ‘Has this happened before?’ Or, ‘How do you manage when this happens?’
Ways you can support colleagues
If someone does disclose that they are a victim of domestic abuse, then there are simple things CMHA suggests you can say to make them feel supported and not stigmatised or embarrassed:
- Validate them and support them. Acknowledge their courage in talking about it
- Don’t tell them what to do. Be led by them in terms of what would help them. Many survivors of domestic abuse will have been in their situation for a long time. They will have significant coping strategies. Just listen and acknowledge and signpost to support if they want this. Help to put the person back in control of their life.
- You can move on to discuss safe ways of communicating such as code words and police silent calls
What progressive businesses have been doing to support domestic abuse victims during the crisis
CMHA global member businesses are committed to supporting the wellbeing and mental health of their people, so many of them already have policies in place to support domestic abuse victims within their organisations. They have clearly communicated, and built on, these policies at this time of crisis. The policies include interventions such as:
- 10 days paid leave for anyone who is affected to provide flexibility to take time out and seek the support they need
- Interest free loans to allow a victim to access resources to make new arrangements or meet particular financial needs at short notice
- Offer to have their salary paid in a different way which gives victims control of their money
- Provide flexibility in terms of working patterns. Ensure line managers are given permission to act upon those requests
- Provide a new phone and number -both personal and work
- Provide options for victims to access a range of support whether that’s through an EAP, line manager, staff networks or support and advice lines
- Provide line manager training on how to spot signs of domestic abuse, have conversations and signpost to support
- Provide an emergency assistance programme at no cost to the individual so they can get safe accomodation for themselves and, if relevant, their children
- Provide 1-1 counselling support to the victim
Importantly, these CMHA business members regularly communicate policies and support available, and engage their senior leaders in communicating these policies to raise awareness and create a culture where people feel they can ask for support.
It is important to include a wide range of resources, either internal or external, that speak to different intersectionalities to reflect the demographics within your workforce and bring in any networks e.g. your BAME network, into the conversation.
How employers can also appropriately respond toward perpetrators
Any employer could also potentially employ perpetrators of domestic abuse. There are a number of things that you can do to ensure that it is clear that this behaviour is not tolerated. Domestic abuse policies CMHA suggests could include:
- Details of specific actions that the employer may take against a perpetrator if found guilty of abuse
- Include signposting to support where a perpetrator of abuse can seek help
- Make it clear that misuse of company time and property to harass or send abusive communications to other people will be grounds for disciplinary responses
Remembering that all lives matter
An important message to remember during this moment in history is that there is an incredible amount of unnecessary violence and suffering humans are causing toward one another across the world. We cannot control a health pandemic and the physical health impact that it’s having on humanity. But we can look at ourselves in the mirror and ask what we can control and what choices we have to make the lives of other humans better.
Businesses and societies can, and should, do the same.
See City Mental Health Alliance’s Full Domestic Abuse Guidance for Employers During COVID-19 Pandemic here.
About the author
Heather Kelly is the founder of Aura Wellbeing, a consultancy providing workplace wellness strategy, coaching and training services to employers. She’s also Content Director for Make a Difference Summit US and Online Editor for Make a Difference News. Heather led the development and operation of the Workplace Wellbeing Index, during her time working for the UK’s largest mental health charity, Mind. In her earlier career she worked as a photographer, a journalist and a senior manager in the insurance industry. She’s passionate about inspiring more empathy and awareness in workplaces toward normalising mental health and in her spare time Heather teaches photography to teens as part of a charity projects in London and Spain, she’s an avid runner and experimental chef for recipes promoting healthy minds.