Domestic violence affects workplaces, too

 Suzanne Bowness  |  Published Wednesday, Sep. 30, 2015
Original Article via Globe and Mail

“I was stabbed by my husband 12 times in January, 2001.”

Fourteen years later, Kim Gibson’s tone is matter-of-fact as she describes the moment that changed her life and the lives of her children forever and ultimately transformed her into a spokeswoman against domestic violence.

She also admits that categorizing her now ex-husband’s stalking behaviour as an annoyance rather than a threat may have put her workplace colleagues at risk, too.

“Not a single one of us had even considered that danger,” she said.  Up to the day of the stabbing, the abuse had been mostly verbal. The incident, which occurred at home, happened after Ms. Gibson told her husband she was planning to leave him, a common trigger in domestic assault cases.

Until recently, there had been no Canadian numbers to quantify the effect of domestic violence on the workplace. That changed late last year, when the Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children at the University of Western Ontario, in partnership with the Canadian Labour Congress, released the initial findings from a survey of over 8,400 workers across Canada.

The survey was inspired by a 2011 project in Australia, where the results spurred unions and employers to agree to add domestic violence benefits to the collective agreements of nearly two million unionized workers. Since then, similar research has been undertaken in New Zealand, Turkey, Britain and the Philippines.

The Canadian findings, presented in a report titled Can Work Be Safe When Home Isn’t?, revealed that a third of respondents reported experiencing domestic violence, while 35 per cent believed a co-worker was experiencing domestic violence. More than half of people who had experienced domestic violence said at least one abusive act had occurred at or near their workplace (most common were abusive calls or texts and stalking). The economic cost has already been estimated by a 2012 Department of Justice report at $78-million annually in lost time, productivity and health-care costs.

While there has been some recognition that the effects of domestic violence can spill into the workplace – Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act, for instance, specifies that employers who are aware or ought to be aware that domestic violence may happen at work must take “every precaution reasonable” to protect a worker at risk of physical injury – more remains to be done, says Barb MacQuarrie, community director of the centre and co-author of the report on the study’s findings.

“I see very little movement towards anything that’s going to equip managers, supervisors, union stewards [and] HR health and safety reps with real skills and tools to actually be able to recognize and respond to [domestic violence].”

Ms. Gibson, who now works as a manager at a Tim Horton’s franchise in Lucan, Ont., near London, and is open about discussing her past, is trying to change that. With the support of her store’s franchise owners, Colleen and Richard Strong, she implemented a training program to educate workers about domestic violence.

In the eight years since the program has been in place, it has helped six employees. While she started the program at staff meetings, it is now incorporated at every orientation. Topics include the responsibilities of employers and employees, tips on how to recognize warning signs and advice on how to approach co-workers.