Supporting Employees Facing Family Violence

Supporting Employees Facing Family Violence

Research shows domestic and family violence typically increases after an emergency or a natural disaster. The current health crisis is no exception, with the United Nations describing a worldwide increase in domestic abuse against women as a “shadow pandemic,” alongside COVID-19.

In marking White Ribbon Day, tomorrow Friday 20 November, communities across the country are preparing to raise awareness and encourage action to end family violence.

White Ribbon Day is also an excellent opportunity for employers to consider the impacts of COVID-19 and ensure a comprehensive workplace response to domestic and family violence.

Almost one in ten Australian women in a relationship experienced domestic violence during the coronavirus crisis, with two-thirds saying the attacks started or became worse during the pandemic.

The survey of 15,000 women by the Australian Institute of Criminology in May 2020, also revealed that for over a third of women, this was the first time they had experienced physical or sexual violence within their relationship.

Domestic violence is a major health and welfare issue in Australia with, on average, one woman a week murdered by her current or former partner, and one in four women having experienced emotional abuse by a current or former partner.

While men can also be victims of abuse, the majority of violent behaviour is committed by men against women.

Family and domestic violence is a workplace issue

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics two thirds of women who suffer from family violence are in paid work. Maintaining employment is a critical aspect for leaving an abusive relationship, as the workplace serves as a safe place for the victim or survivor as well as providing much needed financial stability. Economic factors are the most significant predictor of whether a woman experiencing domestic violence remains, escapes or returns to an abusive relationship.

A growing body of evidence has shown the impacts of domestic violence can affect an employee’s health and wellbeing, productivity at work and attendance. For an organisation, family violence can result in lost productivity due to absenteeism, illness, injury, and distraction.

Pre-pandemic research by KPMG predicts that by 2021-22 three quarters of a million Australian women will experience and report violence, costing the Australian economy an estimated $15.6 billion, which includes productivity related costs such as absenteeism and employer administrative costs such as employee replacement.

White Ribbon Workplace Accreditation Program

Addressing the challenge, White Ribbon Australia has been championing The White Ribbon Workplace Accreditation Program. This program supports organisations to adapt culture, policies and procedures to equip staff with the knowledge and skills to address the issue of violence against women, within the workplace and broader community.

Accreditation recognises the active steps a business takes to create a safer and more respectful workplace and is supported by a network of experts who share HR policy and best practice resources.

The program is internationally recognised, has reached more than 600,000 employees nationally and boasts 230 accredited workplaces nationally and 140 participating organisations.

The benefits of the White Ribbon program include:

  • Increased knowledge and skills of staff to address violence against women
  • Improved workplace culture, office safety and morale
  • Better retention rates and lower staff turnover
  • Improved productivity
  • Reduced absenteeism
  • Enhanced risk mitigation

Key supports for employees

As with any organisation-wide initiative, executive buy-in and proactive policies and procedures are essential, as are communication strategies to ensure all employees are aware of the support mechanisms available in the workplace.

The overarching objective of an organisational response to family violence should be to raise awareness of the issue, ensure support to those affected, take steps to prevent domestic violence and create a work environment that is supportive and safe.

Job security and an independent income are integral for workers trying to leave violent relationships and those who are setting themselves up after leaving a violent relationship. To this end, there are some key practices organisations can take to support victims of domestic and family violence:

Flexible working arrangements:

Flexible working arrangements can help with safety planning and are very helpful for an employee experiencing domestic violence. Consider tailored approaches, which could include changes to working hours such as an employee’s start, finish or lunch times or changing patterns of work by introducing split shifts or job sharing.

If necessary, employees could be offered an alternative work location for safety reasons and duties can be reassigned such as moving into non-public facing roles or temporary work assignments off-site.

Keep in mind that employees experiencing violence may be placed at a greater risk because of working from home arrangements bought on by the pandemic. Consult workers on all relevant risks and offer support to manage these risks. Offer those at risk of family violence an alternative to working at home, such as at the workplace or off-site.

Leave entitlements:

All employees, including part-time and casual, are entitled to five days unpaid family and domestic violence leave each year. Under the Fair Work Act, employees dealing with the impact of family and domestic violence can: take unpaid family and domestic violence leave; request flexible working arrangements; or take paid or unpaid personal/carer’s leave, in certain circumstances.

White Ribbon Australia recommends that organisations offer 10 days leave per year for staff experiencing domestic violence. This can be used for attending court and legal proceedings, getting legal advice, attending medical appointments, or to organise alternative accommodation.

Safety plans

Workplace Health and Safety policies should include the process for conducting a risk assessment. If there is a safety risk to the employee or others a Safety Plan should be developed with the employee, security, a trained manager or supervisor and other relevant personnel.

The Safety Plan would reflect the general safety measures that can be introduced as well as specific plans tailored to the needs of individual staff. Possible actions could include changing work numbers, email address and screening calls to the employee. Take protective measures like using a card or key access to worker-only areas and review transport issues to ensure safe access to and from work.

An organisation’s domestic violence policy should emphasise safety, flexibility and options for any employee needing support. Additional workplace measures that drive improvement include:

  • Fostering a culture of respect, trust and gender equality
  • Ensuring all employees have access to professional services such as counselling and legal advice as part of an Employee Assistance Program.
  • A clear return to work plan for employees who have taken domestic violence leave
  • Ongoing monitoring to provide support and monitor an employee’s wellbeing in the longer term.
  • Protection from adverse action or discrimination based on the disclosure of domestic violence.
  • Providing regular and ongoing training to managers and relevant staff so they can recognise and respond to signs of domestic violence, and promote education and awareness of this issue to all levels of the workplace from executive through to entry level staff
  • Communication of workplace policies, procedures and support available on a regular basis to ensure all employees are informed


References and further reading

White Ribbon Australia

Male Champions of Change Institute: Workplace Responses to Domestic and Family Violence during COVID-19 Crisis

UN Women Australia: Taking the first step: Workplace responses to domestic and family violence

Information sheet: Domestic and Family Violence Workplace Strategy