As Ireland continues to emerge from lockdown, employees that have been working from home are advised to continue doing so. For some employees in this situation, the lockdown has enhanced productivity and increased role enjoyment. Others, meanwhile, have had to assume ancillary roles such as teacher, childminder, carer. Being in close confines with one’s partner and/or children, while trying to work from a makeshift home-office, has proven to be a significant source of stress for many. As a HR leader, you may have already had to adapt employees’ working hours to suit their home life or offer support by way of employee wellness incentives. However, sometimes an employee’s domestic situation may go beyond what is considered to be ‘normal’ levels of stress.
“Most relationships have a degree of ‘stress fractures’ that may be coped with by showing tolerance or having the ability to ‘take a break’ or ‘get away’,” says Lisa Morris, Manager at Amber Kilkenny Women’s Refuge. “But with quarantines and household confinement becoming the new temporary norm for most, these safeguards may no longer be feasible. This means there is a greater risk for destructive behaviour to manifest and have negative impacts. Most individuals can tolerate certain levels of discomfort or tension because there is a foreseeable end to the tension, whether it’s the end of a conversation, end of a work-day, end of a project – there is an end in sight. While the same is still possible during home confinement in most healthy relationships, the same is not possible in an abusive one.”
Three months into working from home, and the lockdown has already proven to exacerbate volatile domestic situations. “We are aware that there are increased number of reports of domestic abuse to Gardai and the social work department,” Lisa says, “and there has been a slight increase in women going to court for protection orders in the past two months.” And while this hasn’t directly translated into an increased number of calls to Amber’s helpline, Lisa feels this may be because victims of abuse are now in situations where both partners are at home: “They [victims of abuse] are living in homes with the perpetrator and may not be allowed access to a phone or may be too fearful to try to seek support. They may not be allowed out of the house on their own. There is no let-up in some of these situations, as it is the perfect storm for any abuser where we are all being directed to stay at home. For these ones, staying at home is not safe at all.”
The problem is that many forms of abuse may go unnoticed by external parties. Physical abuse that leaves a mark is perhaps the most recognisable form – though not all physical abuse will be apparent. Emotional abuse, where the victim is threatened, manipulated or otherwise controlled is less recognisable, and can be every bit as damaging. In fact, it is the forms of domestic abuse that are not easily identifiable by others– psychological, emotional, financial or sexual – that are far more common. Many of these forms can lead to a victim feeling trapped, dependent on the abuser and so less likely to seek help or to admit there is a problem.
Given the current working arrangements, many employers now have a unique vantage point from which to recognise the warning signs of domestic abuse. According to Lisa, these signs could include an employee showing signs of tiredness or stress, being visibly upset or withdrawn, missing days from work, being monitored by their partner or not having access to certain material items, such as a car or their own money. In a physical workplace, these signs could include someone turning up late for work, receiving lots of calls and texts and not wanting to go home.
“Remember,” says Lisa, “that an abuser will go above and beyond to try to get his partner/wife fired from their job by doing things such as making them late for work all the time, taking car keys, damaging work property or doing other things that would risk their employment.”
If an employer notices these signs, the first step is to enquire with a non-judgemental attitude as to how they are and whether they have the time and privacy to speak with them. From there, Lisa says, “ask how their family is coping, and how they are finding life during these times.” Just remember not to jump to conclusions. “Whether this is unusual behaviour or ‘normal’ for the person there may be several reasons why they are acting this way – especially as many people are struggling with the current situation. It doesn’t mean they are being abused at home or in an abusive relationship.”
Be prepared, too, for someone not to accept support, or to say that everything is fine. “The employee may always have excuses but may be too scared to tell you the reasons behind it. They might have been threatened by the abuser and be afraid to open up. Feelings of shame and guilt can play a huge part in this. As well as that, many victims experience abuse even when they leave the relationship – post separation abuse is very common.”
How to support an employee in a domestic abuse situation
It is reported that 1 in 4 women suffer from domestic abuse. If you have a female employee in a domestic abuse situation, Lisa’s advice is very clear: “Listen to her, try to understand and take care not to blame her. Believe her. Support her. Tell her that she is not alone and that there are many women like her in similar situations. Acknowledge that it takes strength to trust someone enough to talk to them about experiencing abuse. Give her the time to talk, but don’t push her to go into too much detail if she doesn’t want to. Acknowledge that she is in a frightening and very difficult situation. Tell her that no one deserves to be threatened or beaten, despite what her abuser has told her. Nothing she can do or say can justify the abuser’s behaviour.”
As a HR leader, there is only so much that you can do to help your employee’s home situation. It is vital that you direct your employee to where they can seek further help. Lisa recommends passing on the phone number of Amber Women’s Refuge (Tel: 1850 42 42 44). This way, a trained member of staff can offer support. The National Domestic Violence Helpline (Tel: 1800 341 900) can also provide support. In the UK, the number is 0800 2000 247
Of course, it is not only females that suffer at the hands of a partner. According to mensaid.ie, 1 in 7 men experience some form of domestic abuse. Toxic masculinity is a phrase often used to refer to the negative effects of male hegemony on the female, such as violence or physical dominance. Recent narratives, however, have included the acknowledgement that ‘toxic masculinity’ has negative effects on males too. Society has often placed the male in the role of providing for his family, with any cracks due to the resulting pressure being seen as a sign of weakness. In turn, this can lead to a reluctance to speak out. With suicide rates in Ireland being largely dominated by males (a whopping 83%), this is something that we cannot ignore.
In Ireland, males and females are treated equally and reports of domestic abuse will be taken seriously. Whether a male has suffered at the hands of a male partner or a female partner, it is important that you listen to him and offer support and guidance on how he can seek help. Mensaid.ie offers a helpline telephone number (Tel: 01 554 3811), a counselling service and much more. The Male Advice Line (Tel: 1800 816 588) provides advice during certain hours, 7 days a week. In the UK, the number for the Men’s Advice Line is 0808 801 0327
Steps HR can take to proactively address domestic abuse
Domestic abuse has long been one of those taboo subjects. We are all aware it happens, but many of us are uncomfortable talking about it. This makes it extremely difficult for an employee – or any individual – to raise the subject and seek help. As a HR leader, there are some steps you can take to ensure that you are creating a forum for your employees to raise this sensitive issue.
The first step is to ensure employees have ready access to information. In a physical workplace, this could mean sticking up educational posters about domestic abuse or handing out support cards. In a work from home space, you could send out an email or create an online channel on whatever online collaboration tool or intranet that you use. Lisa says that Amber can offer these resources to employers who need them.
A next step would be to look critically at your training and development programmes. Are you already actively addressing this area through training, or is training lacking in this area? It is important that in this new era of home working, you are taking all steps possible to ensure the health, safety and welfare of your employees. Womensaid.ie offers training to organisations who wish to address this area. Amber can also support employers through the provision of an Awareness Raising workshop with employees to educate them on the dynamics of domestic abuse.
Consider, too, your Employee Assistance Programme. Is there room for some improvement? You may have included access to counselling for stress or anxiety, but have you thought about including counselling for victims of domestic abuse? Is there a section in employee contracts/handbooks which provides guidance on how an employee can broach this subject, and to whom?
As an organisation, you can also aim to raise funds for domestic abuse victims. Such an act will no doubt communicate to your employees that this is something your workplace is aware of and takes seriously, and they may be more likely to approach the issue.
What to do if you are the one in a domestic abuse situation
For anyone who may be suffering at the hands of an abuser, Lisa offers this advice: “When you are ready and when it is safe please seek help- speak to a trusted friend or family member that you know you can count on for good support, or reach out to your local domestic violence service such as Amber. We are here to listen and support you 24/7. We can help you think about what type of support you need. Taking the first step is probably the most difficult and the most dangerous so it is very important to have a Safety Plan in place – which we can help you to devise. Your, and your children’s, safety is paramount- so having the space and time to talk where you cannot be overheard is important. This can be hard when you are confined with the perpetrator.”
If you are a victim of domestic abuse, then please do open up to a friend, external family member or your employer. The Amber Kilkenny Women’s Refuge operates several supports including accommodation for up to seven families, a safe space for women and children who have fled abusive homes. The Refuge also offers a 24/7 helpline, a court accompaniment service, a support group called the Freedom Programme (a 12-week confidential group, where participants examine the tactics and abusive behaviours of a perpetrator), an aftercare/recovery programme, a counselling service and an outreach service in locations around Kilkenny and Carlow. Amber can also offer all kinds of practical advice; “Women often seek help regarding legal options, safety planning, housing options, reporting assaults, immigration, community support, referrals to other agencies, counselling and support for their children,” says Lisa, “and the court accompaniment service helps women seek redress through the courts, seeking court protection orders and other family law related matters.”
If you are not based in Kilkenny, then your local refuge will be able to provide you with help and support. For a helpful list of phone numbers, links and resources, please visit http://cosc.ie/en/COSC/Pages/WP08000009. If you are based in the UK, you can find further information here: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/domestic-abuse-how-to-get-help#more-support-materials
For further information, please visit www.kilkennywomensrefuge.ie. Those not local to Kilkenny can visit https://www.safeireland.ie/get-help/where-to-find-help/. Donations to Amber Kilkenny Women’s Refuge are welcome and can be made via the website link above. Useful phone numbers for employees:
Safe Ireland: 1800 341 900, safeireland.ie
Women’s Aid: 1800 341 900, text 087 959 7080, womensaid.ie, firstname.lastname@example.org
Male Advice Line: 1800 816 588, mens-network.net
Men’s Aid Ireland: 01 554 3811, mensaid.ie
Employees in the UK
24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0808 2000 247
Men’s Advice Line: 0808 801 0327
The Mix, free information and support for under 25s in the UK: 0808 808 4994