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Employers “have a duty” to support staff who suffer domestic abuse but few have adequate policies in place, the government says. It said bosses were in a unique position to help but a “lack of awareness and stigma” held them back. Calls to domestic abuse services have surged in the pandemic as couples spend more time at home. Business Minister Paul Scully said employers could be a “bridge between a worker and the support they need”.

“It was once taboo to talk about mental health, but now most workplaces have well-established policies in place. We want to see the same happen for domestic abuse, but more quickly and more effectively,” he said in an open letter to employers. Managers and colleagues are often the only other people outside the home that victims talk to each day and so “uniquely placed” to spot signs of abuse, he said. These include becoming more withdrawn than usual, sudden drops in performance, mentions of controlling or coercive behaviour in partners, or physical signs such as bruising.

Employers did not have to become “specialists” in handling domestic abuse, Mr Scully said, but could do more to help, including:

  • Ensuring staff can spot the signs of a colleague facing domestic abuse so they can respond appropriately and sympathetically
  • Communicating that they are there to help, and promoting information about support services
  • Fostering a more open work environment where workers feel able to share problems
  • And offering practical support such as space and privacy to make calls and arrangements or access to financial help.

Firms already taking action include Vodafone, which offers specialist training to HR and line managers and support for victims including counselling and additional paid leave.

In August, law firm Linklaters strengthened its policies and now offers people who need to flee their home but can’t stay with others three nights’ accommodation in a hotel. It also offers the option of paid leave, plus one-off payments of £5,000 to help victims trying to become financially independent. Domestic violence charity Refuge said it saw an 80% increase in calls to its helpline during the first national lockdown, a trend the government believes has continued.

And in November, 43% of respondents to a survey by charity Surviving Economic Abuse showed an abuser had interfered with someone’s ability to work or study from home during the crisis.

Examples included hiding phones or computers, removing wi-fi connections, and phoning an employer claiming a breach of lockdown rules, in an apparent effort to get them sacked.

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