The value of a proactive approach to domestic violence

Bert Alicea | BenefitsPRO

Domestic violence may frequently occur behind closed doors, but the repercussions of abuse have the potential to spill over into the workplace. October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, an opportunity to raise awareness of this important and difficult topic. For organizations who may employ either victims or perpetrators, domestic violence can impact the individuals involved as well as those around them, leading to a ripple effect of lost productivity, legal concerns, and other costs, not to mention the risk of an incident occurring at work.

Unfortunately, no business is immune to the issue of domestic violence. According to the most recent National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, approximately a third of women and a quarter of men report being the victim of violence by a partner at some point in their lives. This means the likelihood of an employee being either a victim or perpetrator is higher than many may realize.

It is important to note that domestic violence is not limited to physical abuse. It can include any range of assaultive and coercive behaviors used by an individual to hurt, dominate or control and intimate a partner or family member, such as stalking, emotional or verbal abuse, financial control and more.

While this is a difficult subject matter to tackle within the workplace, taking a proactive approach to domestic violence can help organizations simultaneously protect their employees while minimizing their risk. Brokers and business leaders can work together to create an action plan and implement prevention and intervention strategies to address domestic violence within their workforce.

The impact on the workplace

Domestic violence impacts people of all ages, races and backgrounds, including employed adults. Although domestic violence is not always physical, tragically, 78 percent of women killed in the workplace between 2003 and 2008 were murdered by their abuser. While alarming, the effects on the workplace begin much sooner, and everyone pays the toll.

Consider that each year, domestic violence victims miss about eight million days of work, the equivalent of 32,000 full-time jobs. Because of this and other factors, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that businesses lose $729 million each year in lost productivity related to domestic violence. Employee turnover is also a contributing factor; up to 60 percent of employees experiencing domestic violence reported losing their job as a result, either because they were fired or had to quit.

In addition to indirect costs, health care costs related to domestic violence can also add up for organizations. Domestic violence victims frequently require medical attention and support as a result of abuse, leading to combined medical and mental healthcare costs of more than $4 billion a year.

The effects of domestic violence are not limited to victims; a survey conducted by the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence found that at least 44 percent of those who worked with a victim of domestic violence reported feeling personally impacted, including concern for their own safety. This can also have a devastating effect on workplace morale.

Recognizing instances of domestic violence

In order to effectively support employees experiencing domestic violence, it is critical to understand some of the common signs that may indicate a problem:

  • Unexplained bruises
  • Unusually quiet/withdrawn
  • Frequent absences
  • Lack of concentration
  • Wearing concealing clothing, even in warm weather
  • Depression and/or anxiety
  • Change in performance attitude
  • Frequent breaks or appointments with friends/family
  • Receipt of harassing phone calls

If an employee demonstrates any of these red flags, intervening in a sensitive and private manner can make a difference and encourage them to seek help before the problem escalates. In order to be most effective, it is beneficial for managers and other employees to be prepared to handle this important yet personal matter. Yet surprisingly, 65 percent of respondents to a survey from the Society for Human Resource Management reported that their organization does not have a policy or program in place to prevent or address domestic violence.

It is important for organizations to realize that domestic violence does not solely happen outside working hours – a survey from the National Safe Workplace Institute found that 94 percent of corporate security directors reported domestic violence as a high security issue at their organization. Keep in mind the workplace is somewhere perpetrators know they can locate their victim. This increases risk and liability for businesses, which can also lead to additional costs, especially without a plan in place to address this issue.

A proactive approach

Many organizations may be hesitant to get involved in instances of domestic abuse or violence. Yet organizations and their partners have the potential to make a big difference by stepping in early and supporting employees, making it critical to have a comprehensive prevention and response plan ready.

  1. Assess current plans (or lack thereof). The first step is to analyze past incidents, assess the potential for issues and determine current preparedness. Taking the time to review this information will help create a plan that meets the organization’s unique needs.
  2. Develop comprehensive policy. Based on the results of the assessment, this should include internal reporting procedures, support mechanisms for victims, including enhanced security measures, and disciplinary procedures for perpetrators.
  3. Implement company-wide training. In order for the policy to be effective, it is important to raise awareness of the issue and educate both managers and employees on how to identify potential situations, follow reporting procedures and respond appropriately. This may also include what to do if an incident happens at work.

Ensure employees are in the know – Get the message out to the workforce through a variety of channels, including newsletters, posters in break rooms or restrooms, the intranet and more. This can include information about the company’s program as well as how to access available resources, such as the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), community organizations or even local law enforcement.

Benefits professionals play an important role in this process by helping organizations proactively implement the right programs to help should the need arise. Waiting until something happens might be too late. By raising awareness of this important issue and connecting businesses with EAPs and other resources, brokers, consultants and others can ensure employers are prepared to address issues related to domestic violence should they arise, reducing liability while ensuring the safety of the workforce.

Norbert “Bert” Alicea, MA, CEAP, is executive vice president of EAP+Work/Life Services at Health Advocate. Alicea is a licensed psychologist and premier trainer with over 29 years of experience in the EAP field. He has a specialization with executive coaching and management consultations in assisting with difficult workplace situations and also conducts corporate training locally and on a national level.