Domestic abuse affects all aspects of women’s lives, and the workplace is no exception. Developing employment practice that recognises the effects of domestic abuse on staff and the business is necessary to retain skilled and experienced people.
Here you can learn more about the simple steps you can take to manage staff experiences of domestic abuse which benefits not only staff members but also the business.
For information on how to support employees during the COVID-19 pandemic, read our guidance on Domestic abuse and COVID-19.Start the test
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Domestic abuse and the law
The Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 was introduced to make all domestic abuse towards a partner or ex-partner whether psychological or physical, a criminal offence. It defines domestic abuse as “a course of behaviour towards a partner or ex-partner intended to cause them physical or psychological harm, or where the perpetrator is reckless as to whether it causes harm.”
Previous to this Act, only physical abuse could be prosecuted as a criminal offence. However, many victim-survivors of domestic abuse may not experience physical abuse, but are subject to coercive control, and degrading treatment. Coercive control is a pattern of behaviour that seeks to take away the victim-survivor’s liberty or freedom, and strip away their sense of self. Within coercive control, violence is often used alongside a range of other tactics including isolation, degradation, economic abuse and the micromanagement of everyday life. This may include monitoring movements, phone calls, finances, dress, social activity and other relationships. The perpetrator creates a world in which the victim-survivor is constantly monitored, criticised and intimidated.
How domestic abuse disrupts women's employment
Historically domestic abuse was considered by some to only affect women at home. However it extends to all aspects of women’s lives, and the workplace is no exception; the majority of women experiencing domestic abuse are also targeted at work.
Perpetrators of domestic abuse often use a number of tactics to disrupt women’s employment including:
- Using workplace resources such as phone and email to threaten, harass or abuse them;
- Sending abusive and threatening phone calls, text messages or emails to their personal phone while at work;
- Preventing them from going to work by locking them in, or by hiding their keys or purse;
- Controlling their finances to prevent them from paying transport costs or tampering with their car to prevent them from going to work;
- Following them into their workplace or waiting outside for them;
- Isolating them from their colleagues by not allowing them to attend social events;
- Verbal harassment, assault or threats of assault when women leave to go to work;
- Destroying personal documents which may prevent them from applying for jobs;
- Preventing them from attending development or training courses;
- Sabotaging their work clothes;
- Offering to provide childcare and not turning up;
- Threatening to take the children if they go to work;
- For non-English speakers, preventing them from learning English which would enable them to work; and
- Discouraging them from applying for promotion or positions where they would become the primary earner in the household.
Domestic abuse can create significant barriers which prevent women coming to work and sustaining employment. By understanding abuse and how it impacts employees, colleagues and the wider workplace, you will be better able to develop policies and practice that can best support employees, and ensure your business is not adversely affected.
How domestic abuse affects women and their workplace
Domestic abuse follows women to work and not only impacts on their health and well-being, but can also affect their colleagues and ultimately the company they work for. It can disrupt the smooth running of a business by causing reduced productivity, increased absenteeism and adversely affecting staff retention.
The impact on a staff member
It is common for victim-survivors to be targeted in and around the workplace. Domestic abuse has a profound impact on women’s capacity to work. It can have long-term consequences for women and causes damage to their physical health, mental health and well-being. Women report experiencing trauma, stress, anxiety, and depression as a result of domestic abuse and can struggle to find appropriate support in the workplace. Domestic abuse can affect victim-survivors’ capacity to work with men, particularly in situations where there is an existing gender or power imbalance. It can have a short or medium-term effect on women’s ability to manage challenging situations, interact with others, or experience career advancement and development
Women in all job types are likely to prefer to avoid disclosure to their employers, but women in senior roles are particularly likely to seek to avoid “victim” status. There is a perception that senior employees or peers (who are more likely to be male the higher up an organisation a woman rises) may wonder whether a woman experiencing domestic abuse is suitable for the job if it is perceived that she "cannot even take care of her own family problems.”
Domestic abuse can cause financial instability or loss of employment because of unexplained lateness or absences. Women often require to take time off work to seek help from specialist support agencies, attend doctor’s appointments or move to a new house. In some cases, they may even leave a job to avoid their perpetrator. It is important that staff whose performance or attendance is suffering due to domestic abuse are given the support they need.
The impact on colleagues
Domestic abuse also affects people who are in the victim-survivor’s life on a regular basis. This can include work colleagues and this in turn can affect your business. The impact on colleagues can include:
- Having to fill in for absent colleagues, or colleagues who are under-performing;
- Decreased productivity or being distracted from their own work;
- Increased stress or anxiety from being followed to or from work, or being subject to questioning about the victim-survivor’s contact details or locations;
- Trying to protect the victim-survivor from unwanted phone calls or visits;
- Feeling helpless and unsure about how to intervene to support a colleague;
- Experiencing a negative impact on their own mental and emotional health, especially if they may also be experiencing abuse themselves;
- Increased staff absence or turnover of key people; and
- Unknowingly assisting the perpetrator to locate their partner or by covering up for the perpetrator at work.
The impact on the workplace
Domestic abuse is estimated to cost the UK economy over £66 billion per year, which includes an estimated £14 billion lost due to decreased productivity, administrative difficulties from unplanned time off, lost wages and sick pay. Domestic abuse can have an adverse impact on staff morale, as well as on a business’s image and reputation.
It therefore makes good business sense for you to support employees who are experiencing or who have experienced domestic abuse.
Recognising the signs of domestic abuse
Victim-survivors of domestic abuse usually do not disclose their experience to anyone at work out of fear of not being believed, being judged, being treated as a ‘victim’, or believing that nothing will change. They may feel embarrassed or humiliated by their experience and not want to share such personal details with their colleagues or employers. This is due to the stigmatisation of domestic abuse in society which can significantly undermine efforts in the workplace to support victim-survivors.
Where a line manager is unaware of, or unsympathetic to, the reasons for persistent lateness, unexplained absences or poor performance, the staff member may be disciplined or in some cases dismissed. Knowing the signs of domestic abuse is therefore important to ensure that you know how to effectively manage the staff member, and support them in their situation.
Signs around a staff member’s productivity may include:
- Changes in the quality of their work for unexplained reasons, despite a previously strong record, such as suddenly starting to miss deadlines;
- Receiving repeated upsetting calls, texts or emails; and
- Constantly checking their mobile phone.
Signs around a staff member’s attendance may include:
- Being persistently late without explanation or needing to leave work early;
- Having more frequent, sporadic absences without explanation;
- Increased hours being worked for no apparent reason i.e. very early arrival at work and/or working late;
- Needing regular time off for appointments; and
- Their partner exerts an unusual amount of control and demand over their work schedule, for example, they may be dropped off and picked up from work and is unable to attend business trips or events.
Signs around a staff member’s behaviour include:
- Avoiding lunch breaks or socialising at the end of the working day;
- Changes in their behaviour such as becoming quiet, avoiding speaking to colleagues, or withdrawing from social interactions;
- Isolating themselves from friends and family;
- Feeling depressed, anxious, distracted, or having problems with concentration;
- Obsessing about time;
- Exhibiting fearful behaviour such as being easily startled;
- Expressing a fear of their partner;
- Expressing fears about leaving children with their partner; and
- Being secretive about their home life.
Signs around a staff member’s physical state include:
- Having repeated injuries and/or an explanation for injuries that does not fit the injuries they have;
- Frequent and/or sudden and/or unexpected medical problems and/or sickness absences;
- A change in the way they dress such as excessive clothing in summer, being unkempt or dishevelled;
- A change in the amount of make-up worn;
- Sleeping and/or eating disorders;
- Substance use and/or dependence; and
- Depression and/or suicide attempts.
Other signs that a staff member could be experiencing domestic abuse include:
- Flowers or gifts sent to them by their partner for no apparent reason;
- Seeming to have less money than previously; and
- Being a victim of vandalism or threats.
This is not an exhaustive checklist and there may be other indications that a staff member is experiencing domestic abuse. It is important to recognise that a change in productivity or behaviour can be as a result of challenging external factors. You should therefore speak with the staff member to determine how best to support them. Having a comprehensive workplace policy on domestic abuse will enable line managers to feel more confident and supported in initiating discussions with staff.
Case study: Raising awareness of domestic abuse in the workplace
A recruitment company, Curate, decided that they would like to do more to raise awareness about domestic abuse across the business. The owner of Curate wanted to highlight to staff that support was available for those experiencing domestic abuse. They developed a workplace policy on domestic abuse and they wanted to make sure that staff were aware of it. They created a leaflet and poster explaining how staff could access support if they were affected by domestic abuse. They put the leaflet and poster in visible places around the workplace, including the noticeboard in the staff room.
To make sure that information was reaching all staff members, they put posters with information and contact details for local Women’s Aid services on the back of toilet doors. They also put up posters that had information on different forms of domestic abuse and signs a colleague might be experiencing it.
The owner also decided to do a lunch time event on where they distributed leaflets and postcards about promoting respectful relationships in the workplace and invited all staff to attend.
Case study: Safety planning
Nasra works for an insurance company, AKB, and disclosed to her line manager, John, that she is experiencing domestic abuse. She is planning on leaving her partner but is worried about what might happen. When she tried to leave before, the abuse got worse. In the past, he had turned up at her workplace when she wouldn’t answer his phone calls. She is worried that if she leaves again that he might show up at her work and harass her or her colleagues.
John referred Nasra to the local Women’s Aid and said that AKB were able to support her while she leaves her partner and relocates to a new house with her children. He asked what kind of support she needed. They talked about creating a plan to ensure Nasra’s safety at work, as well as getting to and from work. They agreed to change her start and finish time so her partner wouldn’t know when she would be arriving and leaving. As well, they arranged a system that if Nasra didn’t make it to work that John would call her mother to check in on her. AKB also provided two weeks of special paid leave to enable Nasra time to move to a new house, and register her children at a new school. They also agreed that John would tell the staff team not to share any of Nasra’s personal details so her partner wouldn't find out her new address.
John also agreed a time to check in again with Nasra to see if AKB needed to change or amend any support she was receiving.
Case study: Coercive control
Zara has been with Adam for over two years. At the beginning of their relationship they were very social, and often spent time with friend, family and colleagues. However, over time, things started to change. Adam started to monitor her whereabouts. He would get upset if she didn’t constantly check in with him throughout the day and would threaten to show up at her work if she didn’t reply to his messages. He started to drive her to work and pick her up. He didn’t like her going out with friends because he didn’t want her to talk to other men.
He would make comments about her appearance and tell her that she should be grateful to have him because no one else would want her. He would comment on how much make up she wore, and tell her that she should be embarrassed to go out in public looking like that. He became controlling over what she wore and wouldn’t let her wear certain clothes because he didn’t want other men looking at her. Sometimes he would ruin or destroy her clothes because he didn’t like her wearing them.
Over time, Zara stopped seeing her friends and rarely saw her family. She stopped answering their phone calls and arranging to see them. She stopped speaking to her colleagues at work and stopped going on work trips or nights out. She was afraid Adam would be angry if he found out she was talking to them because he said he didn’t like them and said she shouldn’t spend time with people like that. She felt anxious, depressed and constantly on edge. She felt like she was walking on egg shells and worried about upsetting Adam. She didn’t want to tell her friends or family because she worried they wouldn’t believe her. She thought that since he wasn’t physically violent, then it must not be that bad.
Case study: Kate
'I was with my ex-husband for 21 years. From the beginning, although he was quite charming and gregarious, he was also controlling but at that point I didn’t see it as abuse. Over time, he became very derogatory towards me, and told me I was worthless and that no-one else would want me. He made me feel like I was losing my mind. He’d say we’d had conversations which we’d never had and deny those we’d had. I felt as if I was going mad. It would come in cycles: everything would be OK for a while and then it would start up again. From the outside we looked like we were a perfect family but we [Kate and her daughter] would be walking on eggshells around him as his behaviour became increasingly unpredictable. He used to tell me that he’d kill himself if he lost me but, over time, that changed to telling me that he’d kill me if I ever left him.
I was working in a senior position doing a job I was good at and felt confident in, although that had been in decline after my husband joined the same organisation. It gave him more access to me and control, which he exploited. He ended up working in close proximity to me and could even come into my office. I was losing confidence at work because, when my husband was working in the building, it brought the fear I had at home into my workplace.
His cycle of abuse would always culminate in him apologising and bringing me bunches of flowers. So, he’d bring the flowers to me at work. He’d come in and make show of hugging me but then would whisper threats into my ear, “If you effing tell anyone, I’ll …” He phoned and sent texts of the same nature: he kept me in a state of fear. No-one at work knew what was happening. My attendance was OK but when I was at work, I was exhausted and anxious and my moods were unpredictable. I’d burst into tears but I’d blame it on pressure at work.
I dreamed of a way out for over ten years, waiting for an opportunity. Eventually, it all broke down in a massive incident when he was arrested and then released on bail with restrictions on coming to the house.’ While her husband was in custody, Kate wrote to HR to report what happened and access support. However, she never received a response.'
Kate went on a leave of absence and when she returned, ‘They expected it to be all over. They thought that the one incident which resulted in court orders was the extent of domestic abuse. They didn’t understand about coercive control, and that they were allowing him to continue to manipulate me at work.’
While she was on leave, her employer conducted a risk assessment and implemented a safety plan. Kate wasn’t involved in any part of the process, and therefore her employer was unaware of the risks the perpetrator posed.
‘The safety plan was limited to saying that we should park in separate car parks, and that he was not allowed to come into my office. I’d often find his car parked next to mine when I left work; and if I went to the loo, I’d bump into him. It made it impossible to function at work. A year down the line I got an agreement that I’d be told if he’d be in my area of work, and I would then be expected to take annual leave if I wanted to avoid him. I was also allowed to lock my office door as my office was in a quiet corner of the building. But over time, any safety measures they put in relapsed or were forgotten.’
In spite of having a policy to support employees experiencing domestic abuse, Kate felt unsupported by her employer and felt that they didn’t take the situation seriously. ‘My manager did her best to be sympathetic but she didn’t always say the right thing, such as “oh, but he didn’t hit you”’.
‘The disciplinary hearing resulted in a written warning, which expired after a year. He was able to minimise what happened and put it down to one event fuelled by alcohol. It felt as if my employer colluded with him. They should have invited me to participate and should have taken a statement from me. They should have had a woman on the panel or at least someone who knew about coercive control. All the ideas I had about what might help me feel safe at work were dismissed.
‘Although I could have raised a grievance, I had limited scope as to who I could approach. And I was exhausted. From the responses I’d had I didn’t think the end result would be any different, and I didn’t want to put myself through any more. So, I eventually ended up long-term sick and didn’t go back. I left because they compounded the domestic abuse by their response. I felt let down by them. I’d worked for them for ten years; it felt like it was a strong working relationship; and they let me down.’
What could have been done differently? Kate says that her employer should have, ‘Listened to me, believed, spoken realistically about what they could and couldn’t do and signposted. They should have made sure that there was some kind of written response to my initial letter which said: thanks for telling us; this is what we will do; and your safety will be our first priority. In not listening to my story, they didn’t get the full picture. And in not understanding about domestic abuse, they didn’t take the right action although I’m sure they think they did the right things.’
Case Study: Inayah
Inayah was rejected by her community when she became pregnant outside of marriage. Although Abbas had already shown signs of being controlling, Inayah felt the only way to be accepted by her community was to marry him. Abbas would regularly hide the car keys or leave the house when he was meant to watch their children so Inayah could not go to work. Abbas would threaten her with violence and told her he would take the kids away if she left him. When Inayah told her parents what was happening they refused to let her stay with them and blamed her for what happened. They gave her tips on how to be a better wife. One night, Abbas violently attacked Inayah in front of their children. She managed to escape shortly after and took the children to the local refuge.
Abbas started showing up at Inayah's work and called her extension repeatedly. He sent his friends to threaten her when security denied him access to the building. Abbas had people follow Inayah home from work. Inayah was embarrassed and worried that her employer was annoyed with the situation. Inayah asked her employer not to contact the police as she felt it would make the situation worse. Inayah decided to quit her job. She has now moved six times to escape Abbas, and as a result, her career has been disrupted and she is working lower-paid, and often insecure, jobs which are below her skill level.
Case Study: Fiona
Fiona has been caring for her young son for the past three years. Her boyfriend Jim controls their finances, and questions where every penny has gone when Fiona returns from the supermarket. He refuses to give her money for petrol or for the bus. Although Fiona contributed to the deposit for their house, her name is not on any of the mortgage documents. Jim insists that Fiona needs to get a job. When Fiona started work, she found that being at work was far easier than being at home and asked for as many extra hours as possible. Being back at work boosted her confidence, and she built connections with her clients and colleagues.
Fiona left Jim when she felt she had enough money to support her and her son, and they moved into temporary accommodation. Her commute to work is now longer and the added pressure of being a single parent means she has had to reduce the number of hours she is working. She’s struggling to concentrate on her work and is having difficulties with time management. She’s forgetting meetings and missing deadlines. Fiona’s line manager Cathy asks Fiona if there is anything she can help with, as she has noticed a change in her work performance. Fiona is embarrassed but tells Cathy what has been happening. Although she has left Jim, he’s still in contact and continues to abuse her. Cathy is able to work with Fiona to have her role moved to another site closer to her new home and also helps her access the flexible working policy to fit around childcare. Within the year, Jim has stopped contacting Fiona and she is feeling more settled. She’s been able to take on more responsibility at work and was successful in applying for a promotion.
Stalking, domestic abuse and the workplace
Stalking is persistent and unwanted behaviour which causes or has the intention to cause fear or alarm. It is a form of surveillance underpinned by the communication of that surveillance.
Stalking is a common tactic used by perpetrators of domestic abuse, but can also be perpetrated by colleagues, neighbours, friends, acquaintances and strangers. The emotional and psychological impact of stalking can result in increasing fear, stress and anxiety, and loss of safety or trust. Victim-survivors of stalking worry that it will impact their job because of unexplained or frequent absences to avoid their stalker.
Stalking can have a significant impact on the workplace because stalkers are able to pinpoint the location of their victim when they are at work. Because of this, victim-survivors may turn up late or want to leave early. For example, some women may want to leave work before it is dark, so it is still light out when they get home which makes them feel safer.
Tactics used by stalkers to disrupt women’s employment can include:
- Preventing them from attending work by tampering with their car;
- Using workplace resources such as phones and email to threaten, harass and abuse employees;
- Watching or spying on them, or forcing contact with them through any means, including social media;
- Following victims to and from work;
- Sending unwanted gifts or flowers to their work; and
- Targeting their colleagues.
Many women who experience domestic abuse will also be stalked by the same partner or ex-partner. It is therefore good practice to include information about stalking in your domestic abuse policy.
List of support services
Scottish Women’s Aid
Scotland’s lead domestic abuse organisation working towards preventing domestic abuse and supporting victim-survivors.
Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline
Support for anyone experiencing domestic abuse or forced marriage, as well as their family members, friends, colleagues and professionals who support them.
24hr service: 0800 027 1234
Rape Crisis Scotland
Scotland’s national rape crisis organisation providing helpline and email support for anyone affected by sexual violence.
Helpline from 6pm-midnight: 08088 01 0302
Scottish Women’s Rights Centre
Free legal information and advice for women experiencing gender based violence.
Freephone: 08088 010 789
Shakti Women’s Aid
Support and information for Black and minority ethnic women, children and young people experiencing or who have experienced domestic abuse.
0131 475 2399
Amina Muslim Women’s Resource Centre
Culturally sensitive signposting and support service for Muslim and ethnic minority women.
Helpline from Mon-Fri 10am-4pm: 0808 801 0301
Hemat Gryffe Women’s Aid
Support to Asian, Black and minority ethnic women, children and young people.
Helpline (24hrs): 0141 353 0859
LGBT Helpline Scotland
A national helpline providing information and emotional support to LGBT people, their families, friends and supporters. Provides support to LGBT people who have experienced domestic abuse.
Helpline: 0300 123 2523