The pandemic is teaching us the extraordinary value of preparedness. When the lockdown started in early March, it came as a shock that society could so suddenly be closed. The implications for citizens who are vulnerable have been highlighted in devastating ways, showing us that a deep-rooted health crisis was already present. Vulnerability and social disadvantage are reflected in the demographics of those who die.
Domestic violence is a different kind of pandemic that becomes more virulent with social isolation. Maryam Monsef, the federal minister for women and gender equality, said lockdown measures related to the virus have led to a 20 to 30 per cent increase in rates of gender-based violence and domestic violence in some regions of the country. We are still awaiting data to understand clearly where the uptick is occurring.
Watching the news from home, how many leaders have wondered how the people who work from them are faring during the crisis? How many of their employees are being harmed out of sight of the zoom meeting? We know that 1 in 3 workers experience domestic violence over the course of their lifetime. The prevalence rates before the social lockdown are alarming.
Increased vulnerability and risk for causing harm is heightened by a number of factors that include: the constant close proximity of abusive partners to victims; increased stress due to job loss, medical concerns, etc.; interrupted access to activities and locations that regularly offer protection against abuse (e.g., work and school environments). For victims of domestic violence, the workplace can be a refuge from the violence at home.
What can employers do to prepare?
Progressive leaders create a supportive culture in which workers feel confident to talk about safety issues, including domestic violence. Confidence grows with consistent responses from leaders that increase safety and support the people involved. Reports are taken seriously and appropriate actions are taken. A comprehensive policy defines abusive behaviour and provides a blueprint for action with varying levels of responsibility.
The entire workforce is trained to recognize, respond and refer:
Recognize warning signs as well as indicators that the risk of serious harm is escalating. Teach everyone.
Respond safely and effectively. Reporting, risk assessment, safety planning, ongoing monitoring of risk are elements of a response. Each situation needs a tailored response.
Supervisors have responsibilities that require additional training to be able to protect workers.
Refer and engage local experts who can provide risk assessments, safety planning and other supports.
Implementing a whole organization approach to preventing and responding to domestic violence is the baseline preparation needed in advance of a crisis like COVID-19.
Before the next lock-down, prepare a communication to workers, to acknowledge increased domestic violence rates during the COVID crisis. Restate the commitment of the organization to support victims with reference to your policy. Acknowledge that social isolation can create additional stress in families. Include a message directed to workers who may find themselves at risk of harming their partner or children, to stop and reach out for help. There are government funded services in most provinces and territories that can provide support to reduce the risk for violence. See: Treatment programs for abusive partners.
From there, your emergency preparedness can be expanded to include measures that can be quickly implemented. These measures might include:
- a ‘safe word’ that triggers different responses
- a safety plan to check-in by phone, email or texting using secure technology
- information about how and where to go if a worker needs to suddenly flee their home
- pre-contact with referral sources to establish relationships that open doors quickly for a fleeing worker
- provisions for paid and unpaid leave
Public health officials are clear that there will be another outbreak. Take steps to prepare your organization now for the next pandemic, and for the one after that. Addressing domestic violence begins with the commitment to protect your workers in good times and bad.