The pandemic has created what the UN describes as 'a perfect storm' for domestic abuse. We spoke to Homes for Haringey, which has extended its domestic violence service to support employees and created a peer support programme during this difficult time.
If employers have sometimes been reluctant to extend their safety and health messaging to employees’ home lives, then the pandemic has demanded a change in approach. The dividing line between work-life and home-life has never been so flexible: organisations have an unprecedented number of employees carrying out their duties from home, many for the first time. This sudden shift in working arrangements has shone a light on the risks facing individuals in precarious domestic situations; in particular, domestic abuse.
Lockdown restrictions can leave victims socially isolated, cutting them off from colleagues, line managers and other potential sources of support, while financial pressures and job insecurity can make already volatile situations more dangerous. The challenge for employers is knowing how to support staff members working from home when home isn’t a place of safety.
Homes for Haringey, the housing ALMO set up in 2006 to manage the London borough’s council housing, was a step ahead of many organisations when the first lockdown began in March. It had carried out a thorough review of its domestic abuse procedures in 2019 and had strengthened the support available to employees from Hearthstone – Homes for Haringey’s dedicated in-house domestic violence advice and support centre for residents – by introducing manager training and other measures to support employees.
Homes for Haringey recognised that domestic abuse doesn’t just affect the residents of Haringey but also colleagues in the workplace, explains Fiona Perrin CFIOSH, senior health and safety advisor at Homes for Haringey. 'So it set about supporting these colleagues in a kind and compassionate way. More workplaces should consider this approach, especially with the lockdowns, the move to more working from home and the added pressures that this can bring.'
Hearthstone’s manager, Fran Bolton, is clear that helping victim-survivors of abuse in the workforce should be on every organisation’s agenda.
'All organisations have a duty to support and protect staff, and domestic abuse is everybody’s business,” she argues. “Employers need to give employees the opportunity to make a disclosure [of domestic abuse] if they want to.'
The ‘mum test’
Homes for Haringey – which has 750 employees and manages 16,000 tenanted and 4500 leasehold properties – had in place a policy on domestic abuse prior to 2019 but, explains Fran, wanted to get something much clearer in place for staff.
'There are so many barriers for victim-survivors,' she explains, 'especially in the workplace: there’s the fear or being judged, or of not being believed. So we want to make sure we get it right first time. We use the mum test: if it happened to someone in our family, we would want to know they were getting the best support available, and it’s the same for our employees.'
'Lots of managers are worried about saying the wrong thing, so we aim to give them the confidence to have those conversations'
The revised policy on domestic abuse and violence against women and girls (VAWG) details the support and advice on offer from the in house service Hearthstone, including access to solicitors, counselling and housing services. It also signposts other local support services, in case employees prefer not to use the in-house service.
There is provision for 10 days of discretionary leave for any employee experiencing domestic abuse, allowing them time and space to consider their options, access legal and other specialist services or move house.
The policy focuses on “safety planning”; that is, establishing ways to support employees who report abuse, whether it’s altering working hours, screening calls or escorting an individual into and out of the building. Above all, the policy is victim-survivor focused, Fran stresses.
'Anyone experiencing domestic abuse has a right to feel believed: they know their own circumstances and employers should be led by this. It’s their life, so our approach is centred on them and their particular needs.'
Homes for Haringey relaunched its policy in November last year to coincide with the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence, an international campaign that runs annually from 25 November to 10 December.
'With the support of the executive leadership team, we used the 16 Days of Activism to promote the work of Hearthstone and to highlight that one in four women and one in six men will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime,' explains Fran.
Alongside the updated policy, Homes for Haringey also launched new, mandatory training for managers on the impact of domestic abuse and its potential effects in the workplace. Delivered by Fran and the director of housing demand (the joint domestic-abuse lead for Homes For Haringey), the training takes place quarterly (to capture new starters) and covers the organisation’s policies and procedures on domestic abuse, how to spot the signs, and how to manage disclosures and respond appropriately.
'What is really important is offering examples of how to support staff,' says Fran. 'Lots of managers are worried about saying the wrong thing, so we aim to give them the confidence to have those conversations – to ask an employee if they’re okay.
'Nine times out of 10 people like to be asked. It doesn’t necessarily mean that if there is a problem they will be ready to access support, but it opens the door, and they know they can come back when they’re ready.
'I’ve had managers come up to me after the training and say that in the past they haven’t known how to talk to an employee about domestic abuse but now they would know what to do.'
In December last year the Homes for Haringey Staff Conference demonstrated its dedication to raising awareness among employees of domestic abuse. A series of workshops introduced the idea of peer support, and before long Homes for Haringey had 20 volunteers to be “Survivors’ Champions”.
The Survivors’ Champions are trained to understand the dynamics of domestic abuse and VAWG, and they can offer victim-survivor employees a listening ear, as well as practical support in the form of signposting further help. The Survivors’ Champions meet with Fran every month.
'There was no recruitment drive,' says Fran. 'The staff understood the importance of the role, and they volunteered independently. We have Champions from across all the directorates of the organisation.'
Fran points to real 'momentum' in Homes for Haringey’s work on supporting employees and residents who are victims of domestic abuse. As reported widely in the media, the lockdowns of 2020 have seen calls to domestic abuse charities soar. Hearthstone has also seen an increase in numbers of people accessing its services, but Fran attributes this partly to the organisation’s awareness-raising activities and manager training. Homes for Haringey was recently awarded DAHA [Domestic Abuse Housing Alliance] accreditation, the UK benchmark for how housing providers should respond to domestic abuse.
For employers looking afresh – or even for the first time – at the support and protection they offer victims of domestic abuse, Fran recommends starting by devising a policy that is victim-survivor-focused and user-friendly – and tapping into the support and advice available from charities and other services, such as Safe Lives, Refuge and Solace Women’s Aid.
'It’s unfortunate that it takes a pandemic to really highlight the problem – domestic abuse and COVID are a toxic mix,' says Fran. 'But there are lots of employers getting domestic abuse policies in place now, which is really good.'