Most small businesses feel effects of domestic violence on staff, but are ill-equipped to manage impacts

 In Home News Section, Uncategorized

It was April 2021 when Deborah decided to leave her husband, but the threats and violence started well before that.

Deborah (her real name has been withheld as she has a restraining order against her former partner and still fears for her life) suffered domestic abuse at the hands of her former husband for years as her work colleagues looked the other way.

But unlike many victims of domestic and family violence, she wasn’t relying on her former husband to pay the bills.

Deborah, who is now living in a women’s shelter, was a senior consultant in professional services firm at the time.

Her then husband had lost his job before COVID, and once the couple entered lockdowns in March 2020, he was out of work for months. Deborah says that unmasked his narcissism, and his threats and intimidating behaviour escalated.

“He’d be shouting abuse at me,” she recalls.

“The kids were crying. He’d be screaming in my face, going out the door and revving the car.

“It was horrible. I thought, ‘what will the neighbours think?’. But he was being lovely to the neighbours. He was taking them chocolates and asking them if they needed anything.”

Deborah was suffering in silence.

There was no family to help her, and she was also facing bullying from her manager at work at the time, but couldn’t easily leave her job as she was having to pay the bills and all the costs of taking care of her young children.

She was eventually terminated from the position and made to sign a confidentiality agreement that prevents her from revealing her employer.

She never raised the domestic violence she was facing with her employer because she says she did not feel safe.

Deborah is not alone. One-in-four Australian women have experienced domestic or family violence, and on average one woman every week is murdered by her current or former partner.

Most women (62 per cent) who have experienced or are currently experiencing domestic and family violence are in the paid workforce.

New research shows that more than half of Australian small business owners suspect one of their staff members is experiencing domestic violence.

The joint research by Domestic Violence NSW and My Business, released to ABC News on White Ribbon Day, canvassed the views of 400 business owners nationally during March and April 2022.

It shows 54.8 per cent of small business owners suspected or observed one of their workers was experiencing domestic or family violence.

Controlling behaviour and emotional abuse topped the list of the abuse workers suffer, followed by verbal threats and physical violence.

The survey also investigated the impact domestic violence has on businesses.

It found that 31.4 per cent of small businesses surveyed said they did not consider themselves to be well equipped as leaders to help a worker facing domestic abuse, or to manage the potential negative impact on the organisation.

Almost 40 per cent had not allocated someone in the organisation to be responsible for helping staff members facing domestic violence.

In addition the cost of workers taking time off work to deal with abusive partners and the consequences of it, is costly.

The survey found that more than 40 per cent of respondents indicated they had lost money because of workers suffering domestic violence.

This follows earlier research that found domestic violence is a workplace health and safety issue which leads to staff absenteeism and lower productivity, and is estimated cost to businesses about $2 billion annually.

‘Before they hit you, they hit near you’

Deborah says it is often hard for victims to leave, not just because they are financially tied to their abusers, but because there’s emotional manipulation.

She recalls how her former husband would be hot and cold; one minute offering to buy her dinner, and another hurling abuse.

She says even though he wasn’t working, he wasn’t equally sharing the responsibility of helping look after the children. She would have to care for them, including a newborn, and work well into the night.

The stress took its toll.

On Christmas Day 2020, she was rushed to hospital with a life-threatening illness, which had been made worse from the stress.

Finally, in April 2021, she made the call to leave.

“Our lease was coming up to end, and I said to him, ‘Well, I’m not sure that I’m going to move into another place with you’,” Deborah tells ABC News.

“He exploded. He literally would throw things against the wall … Before they hit you, they hit near you.

She says his behaviour then became more intimidating, and her children also feared him.

He would tell her: “You’re the walking dead. Because you’ve got a [health] condition, you’re just the walking dead. Don’t assume that you’ll ever get custody of children”.

He would also threaten to kill himself if she left, saying he went and bought rope and showed it to her.

“The night before we left, he told me he was going to set himself on fire … It was terrifying.”

How employers can help

Champions of Change Coalition released a report last year calling for employers to implement a raft of policies, from paid leave to cash advances and free counselling, to help staff that want to leave a situation.

It also calls on employers to stop perpetrators from using work resources to carry out abuse.

Domestic Violence NSW chief executive Delia Donovan says in most organisations it is likely there’s a worker that has been impacted by domestic abuse who is not getting the proper help they need to leave that situation.

“Businesses have an important role to play in the response to domestic and family violence,” Ms Donovan said.

“This means providing safe and respectful workplaces, promoting policies that contribute to gender equity, providing information and support to staff, and flexibility for staff experiencing it.”

She said the Domestic Violence NSW and My Business survey highlighted how crucial it was to equip managers, HR departments and staff, in safely responding to domestic and family violence disclosures.

“It’s also vital businesses have the right policies and practices to support victim-survivors,” she said.

Call for employers to help, ‘don’t judge’

Earlier this year, laws were passed that enshrine 10 days paid family and domestic violence leave in the National Employment Standards.

The change initially impacted about 2.3 million workers on awards, but after pressure from unions and some senators and MPs, the Albanese government passed laws to make it a universal entitlement.

This means a further 8.4 million workers, including casuals, will be eligible to take paid leave to support them in leaving a violent relationship.

The new workplace entitlement will begin from February 1 next year for all employees in Australia, including casuals.

But small businesses have been given an extra six months to adjust to the changes, meaning it will come into effect from August 1, 2023 for them.

Deborah says if that leave policy had been available, in conjunction with her then employer providing an independent person that she could feel safe to report the abuse to, she might have been able to leave the situation sooner.

“I didn’t feel I could come forward … I had to just go to the refuge and dump my job.”

Her advice to employers, especially small businesses who may struggle with how to handle domestic violence situations, is to give women support to have the courage to leave and “don’t judge”.

“Don’t think that there’s something wrong with the woman for [staying] in this situation of domestic abuse,” she said.

“It can be long-term financial abuse, to the point that you’re beaten down. You’re walking on eggshells at home. You’re taking on all the responsibility for work, for home life, for children.

“You’re not getting emotional support at home, you might be put down psychologically, there’s all of that going on.”

She says while women in low-paid jobs and low socio economic communities are suffering from domestic violence, it also impacts women in middle-income and higher-income jobs.

“I think a lot of women in top jobs are experiencing this, but they haven’t spoken about it.”

By business reporter Nassim Khadem (Original ABC Article)