What do you mean nobody knows what it is?
by Daisy Winters, M.A.
I thought it would be useful to find numbers on domestic abuse in Canada to give a sense of the scope of the workplace impact. I found, perhaps not surprisingly, that stats on Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) in Canada reveal that numbers are readily available for physical and sexual violence. Little information is available, however, regarding other types of aggression in intimate relationships including neglect, verbal and emotional abuse, financial and social control, and male entitlement. A recent survey conducted by Dr. Angela Mallis, author of Smart, Successful and Abused: The Problem of Domestic Violence and High-Achieving Women, indicated that 50% of women between 18 and 36 said they’d experienced some form of some form of coercive or controlling behaviour in their intimate relationships (Kingston, 2019). With women making up nearly half of the workforce in Canada (Catalyst, 2019) and if a brain in survival mode cannot effectively execute the skills and competencies required for high performance in the workplace, is it not time that organizations recognize domestic abuse as a relevant factor to achieving organizational goals and overall employee engagement?
Despite years of work experience and several degrees and professional certifications, there were many times that I desperately struggled to focus on work during my marriage. I would read the same paragraphs over, and over again, without comprehension. I avoided emails and missed deadlines. I made excuses of sick kids, sick parents, sick me, always avoiding the real reason I felt like I was drowning. I wasn’t sick but my brain was rusted shut, firmly entrenched in survival mode. I struggled to read, research, create content, and provide students with robust and timely feedback. I felt couldn’t speak to my programme coordinator because I was a contract employee, terrified I would be labelled as “problematic”, and lose future contracts if they found out. The point came, however, that I believed my students’ learning was being impacted by my compromised performance and I felt it was the responsible choice to share the situation with my employer. While my story was received with empathy, my fear became reality: I was excluded from a project that was directly related to my work and, after 15 years teaching with the organization, my contract was not renewed with no communication around the fact that it would not be.
Given the numbers, its impact on the workplace may well be enormous and yet there exists a gross misunderstanding in society as to what is meant by the term “domestic abuse”. Even the older male mediator facilitating my separation had turned to me in the last hour of a 4-day process and asked condescendingly, “you weren’t abused, were you? He didn’t hit you, did he?”, questions that left both me and my female lawyer speechless. This man had practiced family law for 40 years and with his questions, he eloquently demonstrated the pervasive lack of understanding around domestic violence in our society. Ironically, he also illustrated that a target can continue to be victimized by the very people and institutions whose mandate it is to support those leaving abusive relationships, but that’s a topic for a different blog post.
I don’t blame my employer, after all, most people not directly involved in the support system for targets still believe that domestic abuse is limited to physical violence and that it only occurs in lower income segments, to women with little education. In addition, the stigma of being a target is real and many women are driven to hide their situation from their employers, afraid of potential shame or ridicule and/or negative consequences with respect to their professional responsibilities. Lastly, we don’t know how to have those uncomfortable conversations about abuse in general, let alone in the workplace, where employees are expected to leave their personal lives at home. Targets of domestic abuse only feel free to share their stories in “safe spaces”, like women’s centres, essentially gagging them and keeping them firmly entrenched in the victim role. Heaven forbid their stories make anyone uncomfortable! What the workplace sees is the impact of domestic abuse: lost time, lost productivity, lost effectivity, lost sales, questionable interpersonal behaviour, diminished creativity, spotty reliability, etc., with everyone free to make assumptions as to why this might be happening.
I had no idea I was a target of domestic abuse. After all, he didn’t hit me, did he? Because of a gross lack of awareness, I stayed years longer than I should have, and my students and employer didn’t get the instructor they could have, if my brain hadn’t been operating in survival mode for so long. As a call to action, I therefore ask that we, a society, commit to the following:
- Eliminate the Stigma
What if society’s leaders and influencers agreed to eliminate the stigma associated with domestic violence? Campaigns like Bell’s “Let’s Talk” have almost singularly eliminated the stigma and created awareness and action to support those living with mental illness in the workplace. A similar campaign sponsored by a courageous corporate influencer could quickly shine a light on the full spectrum of what is considered to be domestic abuse, not just physical violence, to support both targets and abusers to find help.
- Normalize Conversation Around Domestic Abuse
As a society, let’s not only make the lofty proclamation that domestic violence, in all its forms, is unacceptable but agree to take “uncomfortable conversations” about it out of the shadows and normalize them. In doing so, the characteristics of both abusive and healthy relationships can become general knowledge rather than being limited to the realm of domestic abuse support systems. Education is critical. Greater awareness of what is and what isn’t healthy and tools for healing and preventing the cycle help future generations be healthier, happier, and more productive at work and at home.
- Eliminate the Compartmentalization of Home and Work
Companies wishing to “humanize the workplace” must recognize that employees are fully integrated human beings, with home and work lives inextricably intertwined. Consideration must be given to the fact that changes in behaviour or “underperformance” may be due to domestic violence and, should that be the case, this not be “brushed off” as “personal”, an issue to be checked at the door when the employee walks into the work place.
- Intelligently Support the Full Range of Human Emotions
Recognizing that employees are human also requires permission to be granted for the full range of human emotions to be allowed into the workplace. Grief, frustration, anger, apathy, etc., caused by coercive and controlling power relationships at home (or at work, I might add), need to be intelligently supported by leaders and colleagues rather than shamed. The requirement for employees to be “professional” requires “Stepford-like”, almost robotic, personas. If these emotions are triggered, the brain needs to able to process them in order to move from “survival mode” to the higher functioning we require for work. Asking employees to bury them instead of allowing them to be processed without fear of negative consequences is nothing short of irresponsible given their potential impact on the employees’ emotional and physical health as well as loss of engagement in their work.
- Create a Domestic Violence Protocol
Create a process or protocol for those that want to leave. Make it safe for targets of domestic abuse to report without fear of jeopardizing their income. Earning an income is a path to freedom for many, enabling and empowering targets to leave. Organizations are encouraged to partner with local organizations that support targets, like the Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women for the purpose of education, offering tools for healing, and developing exit strategies. Make it known that the organization is a primary access point for referrals to external support systems.
- Measure the Impact of Domestic Violence on the Workplace
Consider the impact of “survival brain” on work. While some targets present as workplace powerhouses, with no one suspecting that the person they are at home stands in stark contrast to the strength they demonstrate at work, this is not the case for all. What is the cost in terms of lost time, -productivity, -creativity, -dollars for those of us that cannot split our lives in two? Does the organization not have an obligation to acknowledge and find a way to measure the potential impact of domestic violence on its organizational goals?
Domestic violence is a thing, a really BIG thing, for a lot of people and the impact on our workplaces is potentially enormous. Let’s take it out of the bathroom stalls and make it part of the conversation.
“Daisy Winters” is a pseudonym used to protect the parties involved. She is a former university instructor and current coach and consultant focused on humanizing the workplace by leveraging the full range of human emotions to facilitate organizational change. Should you wish to reach the author, please contact the Centre Against Violence for Women and Children at Western University in London, Ontario.