Welcome to the NSPCC Learning podcast, where we share learning and expertise in child protection from inside and outside of the organisation. We aim to create debate, encourage reflection and share good practice on how we can all work together to keep babies, children and young people safe.
George Linfield (Producer):
Welcome to the NSPCC Learning podcast. Domestic abuse always has an impact on children. Witnessing or experiencing domestic abuse can have a detrimental effect on a child's mental, physical and economic wellbeing. And UK legislation now recognises children as victims of domestic abuse in their own right.1 By recognising when an employee or colleague is experiencing domestic abuse, professionals working in any sector can help keep children safe.
In this episode of the podcast, recorded in July 2023, you'll hear four experts from the NSPCC Helpline's Domestic Abuse Project, Paddi, Sarah, Jo and Emily are going to discuss how to recognise signs of potential domestic abuse in a colleague at work and what workplaces can do to support and safeguard employees who experience domestic abuse. I'll now hand over to them to introduce themselves.
Hello, my name is Paddi Vint. I'm Development Quality Manager within the NSPCC Helpline and I'm overseeing a domestic abuse project that's being funded by the COVID 19 Fund. And the aim of the project is to look at our capabilities, our capacities to really respond to the needs of victims and children in relation to domestic abuse and wider harms.
Hello, my name is Sarah Clarke and I am working as a domestic abuse practice advisor at the NSPCC and my place of work and my base is currently Salford.
My name's Emily. I'm one of the Domestic Abuse Practice Advisors based in Birmingham.
My name's Joanne Walsh. I'm also a domestic abuse practice advisor and I'm based in Salford.
So as part of COVID-19 Fund, we've been working within this domestic abuse project and we're really fortunate in that we've been linking in with our own organisation and looking at how best we can support our own colleagues in regards to domestic abuse. We have a domestic abuse policy within the NSPCC helpline. Sarah, why do you think it's so important to have a workplace policy on domestic abuse?
Well Paddi, in the government review report, 'Workplace support for victims of domestic abuse'2, it recognised that having a workplace policy on domestic abuse can be really valuable, not just to employers but to employees as well. And it should be embedded into wider organisational culture. I think the impacts of domestic abuse on victims and their children are often significant and very wide ranging.
The consequences of domestic abuse and moreso economic abuse for survivors can include unemployment, lowered work prospects and even destitution. The long-term impacts on children if their parents do lose their job because of domestic abuse can be devastating. It can result in families having to leave their home, lose their home, and ultimately end up in temporary accommodation. And that is really unstable for that family then going forward. It can result in children having to travel a long distance to school and back every day and it can really change the social circle and impact emotionally on all their relationships.
So it's not just the family and the person, the employee, who is impacted by the domestic abuse. We've got to remember that children are also affected by the working parents as well and their experience of domestic abuse. So employers do have a key role in supporting their employees. To therefore, to allow them to be able to support their family and their children at home as well.
So, you know, it's key and essential. That was one of the things that we really wanted to ensure within our own organisation, is that we address the need to have a domestic abuse policy. Jo, why is a domestic abuse policy such good practice to support those non-abusing parents and importantly their children?
With the domestic abuse policy it is good practice to have that within the way police to be able to support parents and their children. We know that children are seen as victims in their own right now within domestic abuse – not witnessing, not observing, not witnessing – they are now seen as victims in their own right. We also know that when mums or fathers who are being abused in that relationship, it's very difficult to be emotionally there for your child. You've got other the worries, so it's very, very important.
Having a domestic abuse policy, it will set out clear guidance not only for the victim/survivor and their children, but also for managers. They will be able to support consistently across the workplace for everybody. Managers will feel safe in the knowledge that support and advice provided to the worker is structured and up-to-date.
Secondly, I think having a domestic abuse policy, it offers ideas of what practical support that can be offered to them. So, for example, having flexible working hours if victims and survivors need to go to appointments such as solicitors. It can also provide carers leave. Maybe giving a mobile phone for a safe device, because as we know there's more and more gadgets and things like that now that people use – well, abusive partners can use – to stalk and harass their partners.
And it also allows the victims to read up on what they can expect when they go and speak to a manager and offers reassurance. Many victims feel frightened and overwhelmed when disclosing domestic abuse, as some are not even aware that they're in an abusive relationship. So, therefore, having a policy will enable them to gather the information, identify that they are in an abusive relationship, and be reassured that what they're doing is doing the right thing by reporting it to the manager.
Yeah, we want people to feel comfortable coming forward and having that reassurance.
Obviously, all workplaces are very different. But Sarah, what do you think would be some of the main things that should be included in a workplace domestic abuse policy.
I think firstly Paddi, work and that work environment may be the only place where that person actually feels safe. So I think it's really important that we do take into consideration the environment and what options are available and open to them. I think we would need to, obviously, as with any victim and survivor of domestic abuse, once we receive that disclosure from a staff member, we would need to look at risk and safety. That's an absolute priority. So we would support and look at a risk assessment. That can include what does travelling to work look like for you? Where do you park your car? Do you come on public transport? Do we need to change that routine a little bit every day so that it's not readily available or people can't actually stalk and harass you. And if there's onsite security within the workplace, ensure that they are aware of the perpetrator's description, any vehicles that they may use that may approach the building that are associated with the perpetrator.
We would also need to consider time off, as Jo said previously, for any appointments, for carer's leave or for any court appearances, or to get any support from domestic abuse organisations. When that survivor actually leaves that relationship and they have children, their caring responsibilities can completely change. They may have gone from being a two-parent household now to being a one-parent household. We know that domestic abuse, especially coercive controlling behaviour, creates isolation from support networks. So they may not have a support network to be able to help them with their caring responsibilities. So, we need to be mindful when we're supporting staff that are experiencing domestic abuse, that their caring needs for their children may change. We may need to look at that with a more flexible approach to be able to support them, to stay in their job, which will ultimately have a positive impact on their finances and enable them to keep their home and care for their children.
So, you know, it's important that we address and look at those kind of concerns. And, you know, each policy is going to be different. But we know that victims/survivors often struggle with coming forward and seeking that support, and as Jo mentioned, sometimes not even necessarily identifying that they're victims of domestic abuse themselves. Emily, what do you think some of the barriers that people might experience when they have taken that really initial step to speak to their employer?
I think it's always going to boil down to fear, Paddi. It's not a known thing by everyone in every organisation what that policy is actually going to entail, what is going to have an effect on them longer term. They don't even know at that point if the perpetrator will be contacted as part of that policy. Not everybody knows everything. So of course that's not going to happen, but that fear is always there for that person. So, sometimes when people think about approaching a business or management with regard to a problem, then we have the stereotype of that problem as the unconscious bias as well. Sometimes people thinking that domestic abuse is 'a certain way', i.e. physical only and it has to reach a level of severity before they go and get help. That is a barrier to a lot of employees and a lot of people that are generally seeking support anyway.
It's very difficult to disclose what's happening at home if domestic abuse is part of what's going on in your life. So that actually, you know, saying those words and making even that first disclosure may be a really worrying time. There has to be a lot of trust with management to be able to come forward with something quite so personal, something that involves home when they may have been trying to keep home and work separate. So that can be a bit of a barrier as well.
And the fear of how that's going to be dealt with, how that's going to be addressed, discussed, who it's going to be discussed with, because of course, we're talking about people's deepest fears. We're talking about that real intimate time and space of home being divulged, you know, in the workplace. Who else is going to know about it, other people that work on the shop floor, are they going to get to know about it? So it's always a bit of a fear in that trust has to be there to come forward. And I think a robust policy where that is clearly laid out and is very accessible is one way to combat that, really.
We've also got actual job security. Am I going to lose my job because I've come forward with this problem and management are going to see it as too big of a problem to risk assess. Is my job at risk? That is a pretty big barrier. If you're a professional person, say, working in teaching, in safeguarding, in any kind of environment where there's children. Coming forward with something that's happening at home, such as domestic abuse because it does not discriminate, is that then going to set off a chain of events that looks at your professional capability? That is a very big fear as well and I know it's one that in the domestic homicide review process has cropped up quite a few times, where that's the reason that somebody hasn't come forward for domestic abuse support early on; because they've had that fear of their professionalism being questioned.
I think you're right, Emily, and I think it's in relation to, you know, professional registration and the fear that you could actually lose that registration if you make that disclosure. That's why I think, Paddi, that from a policy perspective, HR play a really critical role in any support that's being offered to an employee who's experiencing domestic abuse. Sometimes we can identify sickness, absence levels and any patterns that may show. And it's not uncommon for survivors of domestic abuse who have been reluctant to disclose the abuse to be taken through disciplinary processes and capability procedures due to frequent sickness absence or due to a drop in consistency in performance at work. So, I think it's really vital that we do obviously include HR in any processes and they're really pivotal for me.
Just going on from what you were saying there, Sarah, you mentioned some of the potential indicators, you know, absences from work. What other potential indicators of domestic abuse should employers be mindful of? Emily, I'll ask you.
There's not an exhaustive list, really. There's lots and lots of indicators that we can look at and think, hang on, can we have another look at this? So that might include things like clothing. Is that person wearing something that they've put on that day or are they wearing something that they went out in the night before? Could that be an indication that that person hasn't been able to go home in between being at work and then coming back to work? What happened in between? Sometimes clothing can be a little bit of a giveaway on that one.
Is there anything visible? Have we seen bruises, scratches? Is there is there some kind of physical injury, particularly around the face, the arms, the neck? We're looking for bruises, scratch marks, as I say, and particular patterns. So, of course, we all know about the fingermarks on the upper arm. It bruises quite easily, but it can give signs of restraint. We can have a look at little signs and symptoms of marks, but they can be explained as well as being something from a non-domestic abuse incident. So we have to be a bit mindful that not every bruise means somebody's had trouble at home in that in that way.
Is somebody late all the time? Lateness can indicate that things have been intercepting the ways of getting to work. Preoccupation: if somebody is waking up in the morning and their first thought, which is of most victims and survivors of domestic abuse, is "how am I going to keep myself safe today? How am I going to mask this from the world today? How am I going to mask this from the children today?" They're the thoughts that a survivor will have. So, that preoccupation at work, those thoughts are still happening. What's going on at home? Is somebody going to be outside to meet me when I don't really want them to? I'm not going to be surprised today of that constant looking over your shoulder, checking your phone, text messages, needing to have your phone with you all the time. That preoccupation that's kind of dominating the working day.
Not wanting to leave work. So that can be chatting extensively after work with colleagues. It can be taking on extra pieces of work just to be able to say I couldn't come home because I had this really important piece of work to do. Not wanting to leave work because of literal fear. So, "is it safe for me to leave for work?" And again, that's something that we need to look at when we're developing the risk assessment part of the policies for domestic abuse in the workplace.
Changing behaviours, much like children really. We notice changes in behaviours in people that we're used to seeing and used to working with everyday. So that can be like an emotional change: somebody is extra tearful at the moment or someone is extra stoic or staunch at the moment, not really wanting to talk about anything other than absolute work or wanting to talk about absolutely everything and anything as a distraction from that preoccupation of what's going on at home.
We can get overexplaining and oversharing. We can get sickness. Performance at work, so sudden patterns of errors, drops in consistency and frequent mistakes which go beyond kind of the exhaustion that can happen with with work as well. We can also get minimising personal circumstances. Now an example of this would be if somebody in the workplace had got a problem with something like a practice issue and they thought that they could absolutely nail that practice issue and they could get it done on time, but actually they might not be able to, they will minimise that problem because they're used to minimising every problem at home. They can't bring their thoughts, problems, pitfalls and dilemmas in everyday circumstances to the table because they might actually have repercussions of bringing that negativity or bringing a problem for that perpetrator to be then involved in. So sometimes that does leak into the workplace as well.
So there's quite an extensive list and it's really important that we're mindful of these signs and symptoms. How do you feel colleagues should respond to those incidents of domestic abuse? You know, obviously you're all highly skilled domestic abuse practitioners, but how would you advise employers or colleagues to respond if somebody made a disclosure of domestic abuse?
I think that answer's twofold, to be honest Paddi, because a disclosure to a colleague, I would hope that that colleague would act in pretty much the same way as management, but direct them to management, because then that's how the policy is going to be activated and that envelope of support can be initiated, really. But I think the first thing that we always need to do is give acknowledgement. "Thank you for telling me your story. And I feel, you know, I feel quite honoured that you've been able to tell me about this and let's let's see what we can do. I believe you." That validation of somebody's experience is probably one of the biggest tools that we've got in the domestic abuse world; validating that person's thoughts, feelings and experiences of what has happened to them.
Being supportive. So that might look practically like, you know, you have that conversation where you say "thanks so much for coming me with this, I feel quite honoured. Do you want to go and get a cup of tea and talk about this?" Or make another safe space, safe area where that that disclosure can happen and that discussion can happen about, okay, these are the people who might be able to help us and management and the kind of system involved being one.
Respecting that person and that person's decision because at that moment of that disclosure, that person is the absolute expert of their situation. And we do need to respect that and listen to anything else that follows. Which brings me on to the "why do you not just leave" question that often gets asked. There's a non-exhaustive list. There's hundreds and thousands of things that could go on that list of why do you not just leave? And it's not a very helpful question. So if we can absolutely avoid that at all costs, then that would be really good.
You're right, Emily. You know, managers do sometimes struggle with what to ask, what not to ask. And sometimes, you know, managers, this might be the first time they've ever had to manage a situation where domestic abuse is being brought to their attention. And sometimes people are frightened to say the wrong thing or not the right thing. And we shouldn't be avoiding asking questions to be able to support our colleagues and our employees.
Sarah, what kind of questions do you think a manager can ask about domestic abuse? What would be a good starting point?
I think you're absolutely right, Paddi, and it can be quite daunting for some people when they receive that first disclosure. I think what's really important firstly is that we at all times our person-led; we're led by that person. Because trauma impacts everybody completely differently and we need to be person-centred and showing an approach that, sort of, acknowledges that that person has been through trauma. So it can be something as simple as saying, "Are you okay?" Or "how are you doing at the moment? Is there anything you'd like to discuss with me?" You know, "I've noticed recently that you don't seem yourself. Is there anything that you want to talk about?" And really showing that we're coming from a really supportive angle, showing concern for the person's wellbeing and looking at it from that angle. And again, person-led and person-centred. "What can I do to support you? What support can I give you? What is it that you need from me at the moment?" And, you know, "do you feel safe?"
Underpinning all that, what questions can managers ask? What presentation can somebody that's disclosing domestic abuse come with? I think what we need to be really mindful of is that all times we're creating a safe, calm environment for that person where they can then make a full disclosure if they feel they want to. I think in a really open office, quite chaotic at times, environment isn't the right place. We need to have that safe space within work where we can we can chat to that person.
It really is essential that managers also feel supported to be able to do this. And, you know, organisationally we want to be able to support our team to do that. Jo, what kind of training is available out there for managers on the subject of domestic abuse?
Managers can always contact their local authority, Paddi, their local safeguarding board, there'll be advice there, you know, on training and stuff like that. Safe Lives, Refuge, Women's Aid, or alternatively, I would recommend contacting our helpline. Our staff are absolutely brilliant at the advice that they give.
An example of this was I was actually on the helpline last week and a manager phoned up with worries, concerns of one of his employees who disclosed domestic abuse. He was frightened to go home and he didn't know what to do. So we were able to give that firsthand advice, you know, about maybe contacting the police; safeguarding referral, you know, to get children's social care involved if needed. And it really went well, the call went well and we were able to get the support in place for that victim.
The helpline is available to be contacted either by telephone on 0808 800 5000 or via our email at email@example.com. We're able to offer non-judgemental advice, listening and direct signposting for services within that person's local area. And we'd also urge anybody as well as contacting our NSPCC Helpline for additional advice and support, if you're interested in the subject of domestic abuse and you want to extend your knowledge further then by all means look on our NSPCC Learning page, which has some information and additional podcasts in relation to domestic abuse and wider harms.
Thanks for listening to this NSPCC Learning podcast. At the time of recording, this episode’s content was up to date but the world of safeguarding and child protection is ever changing – so, if you're looking for the most current safeguarding and child protection training, information or resources, please visit our website for professionals at nspcc.org.uk/learning.