A Workplace Issue


When she was eight months pregnant, Rachel’s partner assaulted her. He also ripped their phone out of the wall. By the time she cleaned up her head injury and got to a pay phone, Rachel’s shift at work had started.

This was not the first time that domestic abuse had affected Rachel’s work performance. She lost her job.

Rachel is not alone. With 57 per cent of women reporting abuse at some time in their lives, domestic violence affects millions of workers and almost every workplace.

The impacts of domestic violence at work might include an exhausted or injured worker, absenteeism, or disruptions such as persistent phone calls or emails. Serious repercussions include stalking, workplace violence and even murder.

Staff experiencing domestic violence find it difficult to concentrate and often have lower performance and productivity at work, as they struggle to separate the trauma of their personal life from their work life.

Domestic violence can lead to other problems such as substance abuse, depression, anxiety, mood disorders and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. These exacerbate the affects of domestic violence on work performance .

What affects employees also affects employers. Domestic violence is estimated to cost the business sector alone $1.5 billion annually, with each individual case estimated at almost $10,000. Costs to business include workplace security, decreased productivity, legal compliance, high staff turnover, absenteeism, insurance costs, and increased workplace health and safety risks.

Access Economics estimates the total cost of domestic violence to the Australian economy as a whole at over $8 billion each year. These costs include those associated with injury, premature death, psychological damage, and second generational costs to children.

Rachel remembers having to call in sick to her workplace regularly due to the injuries inflicted by her partner, which ranged from being covered in bruises to sprains, cuts, strangle marks and head injuries. She also missed work due to the emotional stress from both physical and psychological abuse.

‘He was manipulative in that he knew by me losing work, I would have less income. In having less income, I faced the financial barrier of not being able to leave,’ she says.

When Rachel couldn’t take time off, she made excuses for her physical injuries or state of mind. Regular excuses such as sporting mishaps or falls wore pretty thin, so she decided to cover up instead wearing long-sleeve shirts or jackets in summer to cover the bruises on her arms and wrists where her partner had grabbed her.

‘I would say that the air conditioning made me cold, even though I was sweltering,’ she says. ‘I would use heavy make-up to cover the facial and neck bruising and marks from beatings and being strangled. I became a fashionista of turtlenecks to cover the marks on my neck again, even in summer.’

Rachel was harassed and stalked while at work, affecting her performance and standing amongst colleagues. Her partner was obsessively jealous of male co-workers and customers and regularly spied on her at work. If she had to finish only an hour late there would be up to 50 missed calls from him on her mobile phone, as well as abusive and threatening messages.

Domestic violence affects women of all social strata and the ramifications on the workplace can vary greatly. Jim Hardeman is the founder of Workplace Violence Interventions and Strategies and worked for 15 years as the manager of Polaroid Corporation’s Employee Assistance Program. In his recent speaking engagements in Australia he emphasised that:

Domestic violence also affects women at the top, women who hold the title of CEO, Vice President. They are being beaten and violated, and work becomes their shelter. People comment on the overtime they work and how dedicated they are. But they are not dedicated to work, they are dedicated to survival She’s the one who is sleeping in the bathroom, sleeping at her desk because she can’t go home. And she tells no one, as she doesn’t want to be seen as weak, as a victim. She suffers in silence. She gets promoted because she is such a dedicated worker, promoted because she is a battered woman. She is powerful at work but remains under the control of her partner at home.

Betty Taylor, author of the Domestic Violence and the Workplace Training Manual, outlines other indicators that an employee or colleague may be experiencing the effects of a violent relationship. These include: injuries; repeated, sudden or unexplained absences from work; getting repeated calls or emails from their partner; appearing frightened or anxious following calls or emails; asking co-workers to screen phone calls; avoiding making friends with co-workers or socialising outside the workplace; or exhibiting increased anxiety towards the end of their shift.

It is difficult to know how to approach or support a colleague or employee whom you believe is in an abusive relationship. Jim Hardeman recommends telling her that it is a safe work environment with confidentiality and privacy, and that you’re able to listen to her story.

If she tells you her story and says she doesn’t want help, you’ve got to let go, as much as your heart bleeds for her and you want her to get help. She has to understand that you are there for her but at the same time giving her time to make that choice. Batterers control choices and options you can’t also take them away from her. It requires patience, being supportive and maintaining your boundaries. If she wants help, don’t try and do it all yourself provide information about support options near to where she both works and lives.

Taylor says the most basic and essential step for a workplace of any size is to provide information. Women are often physically and socially isolated from family and friends by abusive partners and cannot freely access information and support outside the workplace.

‘Access to information about support options in the workplace is extremely valuable to working women, especially those who work 9:00am-5:00pm, when most services are open. The information needs to be in discreet places such as the back of toilet doors as well as public places such as lunchrooms,’ she says.

Rachel’s partner was typical of abusive men in that he tried to isolate her from friends, family and information. Rachel didn’t have access to information or support options at her work but says it would have been invaluable.

‘It’d be great if in your HR induction you were given personal safety information as well as all the workplace injury stuff. Even posters in the tea room would have been helpful.’

Domestic violence and its effects will not end until violent men change their attitudes and behaviours. For most people, it is difficult to identify men who are abusive in relationships, even if their partner works in the same workplace.

Betty Taylor recommends looking out for men who behave in overly jealous or suspicious ways , continually telephone or visit the workplace of their partner , harass the victim or other staff at work , stalk their partner at work or home, or ridicule their partner to others, even in a ‘joking’ manner.

It is rare for a domestic violence perpetrator to seek assistance that is not mandated. Jim Hardeman estimates that over 50 per cent of perpetrators of violence in the home also commit workplace violence such as bullying
and sexual harassment. He sees mandated programs to address violence and harassment within the workplace as an ideal time to address the attitudes and behaviours that also lead to violence outside of the workplace.

Betty Taylor says that workplaces particularly men in workplaces can attempt to create a culture in which violence and sexist attitudes are seen as unacceptable. Most State governments have educational resources targeting violent men, and campaigns such as White Ribbon Day make a public statement that men’s violence against women is unacceptable.

Taylor says that Australia is well behind countries such as the UK and USA in discussing and addressing domestic violence as a workplace issue. US workplaces, in particular, have recognised domestic violence as a serious security and staff productivity issue.

Taylor emphasises that all Australian governments need to pick up the ball on this issue and that that workplaces of all sizes can make a difference.

‘The effects of domestic violence are all-pervasive. Women suffer silently and business continues losing money unawares. Business should address it not just because of the bottom line, but because it will take all sectors of society to eliminate this blight on our nation.’

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