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Domestic abuse: how to help your employees at Christmas

I’ve thought long and hard about writing this blog; as well as being an HR professional, the other hat I wear is Chair of Trustees for a local charity called Aurora New Dawn. This is a registered charity giving safety, support, advocacy and empowerment to survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence, and I know that Christmas can be a difficult time for victims. Similarly, it can be difficult for those around the victim to know a) what to look out for and b) what to do to help.

Christmas – joy for some, terror for others

Most of us can’t wait to finish up at work, looking forward to a fun-filled and joyful Christmas with family and friends. For others, however, Christmas is the most feared time of the entire year. In fact, cases of domestic violence rise significantly during the festive period. Not a year goes by when we don’t see a seasonal spike in incidents reported to the police.

Domestic abuse is the use of power and control in an intimate or family relationship. It can take many forms, including physical violence, psychological or emotional abuse, financial control, or the use of coercion or threats. As you’d imagine, the combination of financial pressure, free-flowing alcohol and being cooped up in close quarters at Christmas exerts an additional strain on relationships. In an abusive relationship, this pressure is huge. According to the Office for National Statistics, the police recorded 887,000 domestic abuse incidents in England and Wales in 2013-14 and shockingly, seven women are killed by a current or former partner every month.

With figures like that, it’s not unlikely that someone of your acquaintance could be suffering; the odds of one of your employees falling victim to this awful crime is sadly higher than you would wish to believe. Yet few people feel they can talk about it.

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Identifying abuse among your employees

Over the years, I have seen and been involved in many cases regarding domestic violence. The first indication is usually a decline in performance levels. Then there are more obvious, visible signs such as bruises or heightened emotions. You might notice an increase in absence, or perhaps the victim’s partner pursues them at work or over the phone. These signs grow in their intensity, proportional to the escalation of abuse or violence.

The effects can become disruptive to the workplace and the culture, and other staff could pick up on the issue. Some will naturally grow concerned from a caring point of view, but others may not want to get involved in an employee’s personal life, However, today’s workplaces are very much a ‘living social network’ and colleagues share intimate information. People’s personal lives are blending into the workplace – a fact that employers can no longer ignore.

A victim will generally tell a co-worker first and then the gossip will spread, though there are situations where the victim will come directly to a trusted manager or HR representative. There is also the delicate scenario where an employer has direct contact with the abuser in some fashion. Either way, once this knowledge reaches management, you are obligated to act.

How to deal with domestic abuse in the workplace

I appreciate that it’s an extremely delicate and difficult situation, especially if as a manager, you’ve never dealt with this before. With that in mind, my first piece of advice would be: please don’t ignore it.

My second piece of advice is: please don’t try to deal with the issues yourself, as they need professional help and support. If your company offers an employee support line or provides occupational health, then you can refer the individual on.

Alternatively, seek a local charity that the victim could visit, or persuade them to see their GP. These professionals know how to address the situation – sometimes, it’s simply a case of letting the victim know they are not alone and that someone believes them.

I don’t need to tell you that the most important thing you can do is to keep the situation confidential, unless your employee wishes otherwise. Check whether the victim is ‘happy’ for their manager to know they’re struggling (though not necessarily the reason why), to grant them some flexibility, if required.

Shonagh Dillon, CEO of Aurora New Dawn advises: “Christmas is a time where we see an increase in domestic abuse. Of course for many of us, it is a peaceful time of year which we look forward to. However, if you are in an abusive relationship it may be a time where the violence and abuse increase.

“Be aware that there may be people at work that are dreading the ‘Christmas break’, ask them directly if they are frightened of someone at home. Notice what they are like when they come back after the holidays, as this is frequently a time when victims plan to leave the relationship and may need specialist support to do this in a safe way.”

So when the team is wearing funny hats, swapping Secret Santa presents and talking about their Christmas plans, be mindful that not everyone is looking forward to the festivities. Observe your employees, look out for those tell-tale and not so tell-take signs and most of all, foster a culture of trust and openness, to encourage those who are suffering to come forward.

If you would like to find out more, contact Aurora New Dawn for specific advice.