The United Nations (UN) is calling on private sector employers to put in place measures that help prevent domestic abuse and invest resources that better protect and support employees who are victims of domestic abuse.
The intergovernmental organisation has voiced concerns that COVID-19 restrictions have exacerbated existing patterns of domestic abuse and also created new abusive relationships as employees are increasingly left isolated due to lockdowns and other work restrictions.
The UN says the pandemic has created a ‘perfect storm’ with vulnerable employees facing difficult home conditions and unable to raise concerns about abusive partners with colleagues and line managers.
‘Security, health and money worries [that] create tensions and strains accentuated by the cramped and confined conditions of lockdown’ have further exacerbated the situation, it adds.
By early April, more than half of the world’s population was under lockdown restrictions and the rise in reported cases has been a global phenomenon.
According to the UN’s latest data from April, the amount of domestic abuse tripled in China after the pandemic’s outbreak. In Finland it increased by 14%; in the United States by 22%; in Spain by 20%; and in France and Singapore by one-third.
However, these figures only reflect reported cases. In May, UN Women published The COVID-19 Shadow Pandemic: Domestic Violence in the World of Work, which warned that remote working has made it harder for vulnerable employees to report incidents and seek help.
Published the same month, the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) briefing document ILO Violence and Harassment Convention, 2019 (No. 190): 12 ways it can support the COVID-19 response and recovery also reported ‘alarming spikes in domestic violence’.
The briefing document revealed that women and people with disabilities made up most of the cases although incidents of domestic violence against men had also risen.
Home working has made it harder for individuals to access safe spaces where they can discuss sensitive issues with colleagues and/or line managers in confidence and easier for abusers to exert control, the UN says.
The intergovernmental organisation adds that when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted abusive patterns could persist as employers may encourage a policy of remote working for the foreseeable future.
The UN also anticipates that employers could face a surge in workplace support requests from abused employees seeking help.
The COVID-19 Shadow Pandemic underlines the impact that domestic abuse has on the work environment and urges early interventions. The briefing contains case studies of proactive employers, an example of a good practice workplace policy, and recommendations for employers.
Even before the current restrictions, domestic abuse had been linked with higher rates of absenteeism and staff turnover. Employees who experience domestic abuse are also less productive, the UN reports.
In January 2019, the UK Home Office published its report, The Economic and Social Costs of Domestic Abuse, which estimated that in the year ending March 2017, the cost of lost output relating to time taken off work and reduced productivity afterwards due to domestic abuse in England and Wales was £14bn.
Domestic abuse, however, is a complex issue, which requires a multi-pronged approach. Governments and other players also have a significant role to play in preventing incidents and protecting the vulnerable.
The ILO’s Violence and Harassment Convention, 2019 (No. 190) and its accompanying Recommendation (No. 206) sets out specific measures that member states can take to better prevent domestic abuse and support victims. These include leave for victims, flexible work arrangements, temporary protection against dismissal and the inclusion of domestic violence in workplace risk assessments.
Emanuela Pozzan, senior specialist on gender and non-discrimination at the ILO, told IOSH magazine: ‘it is critical that workplace risk assessments are extended to cover domestic violence’.
Statutory agency Safe Work Australia has developed a national guide for safe workplaces under COVID-19. This includes a section on new risks, which covers employers’ health and safety duties in relation to work-related violence and family and domestic violence.
Under these duties, employers must ensure employees are not exposed to work health and safety risks relating to family and domestic violence, even where the workplace is their home.
Employers have a duty to ensure workers are not exposed to risks to their health and safety while undertaking work from home. Employers must do what is reasonably practicable to identify the risks such as providing a safe environment for disclosure, assuring confidentiality and not requiring the employees to provide unnecessary personal details.
Where it is not safe for the employee to be at home to perform their work, the employer is required, so far as reasonably practicable, to provide an alternative work environment.
Employers should also encourage employees to discuss any health and safety concerns they may have as these could affect work arrangements such as remote working. Employers should also ensure there is continued communication once employees start working from home.
How to spot signs of domestic violence and what employers can do to help was the subject of a recent South Cumbria and North Lancashire branch meeting. More information is available here.