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Why Intimate Partner Abuse Needs More Focus in Workplace Violence Policies

Abused woman trying to get through work

Workplace violence was reported as the third leading cause of workplace deaths in the U.S. in 2019. And the COVID pandemic brought violence in the workplace to a whole new level. 

It might shock you to know that there are currently no specific OSHA standards for workplace violence. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t policies and procedures in place for workplace violence and harassment, it just means that they don’t all look the same across different companies.

When conducting a risk assessment, typically the investigator is focused on the work-related factors that increase the risk of injury—including workplace violence and harassment. And in keeping with the General Duty Clause, most workers have been trained on the hazards specific to their site which are identified in the risk assessment. While that includes workplace violence and harassment, it only touches the surface and doesn’t often delve deeper into things like domestic violence.  

When people think of workplace violence, they picture worker vs. worker (or a disgruntled former employee looking for vengeance). They rarely think about an employee’s spouse following them to work and inflicting violence. But they should, because according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in four women and one in nine men will experience abuse at the hands of their intimate partner.

Survivors of domestic violence often don’t inform their employer of their situation for fear of jeopardizing their employment or because they are embarrassed. Since domestic violence involves an intimate partner, it’s not uncommon for the survivors of abuse to defend their abuser or make bystanders believe it’s their own fault. This is a survival technique and is almost always misunderstood. (Keep in mind that on average, it takes seven times for victims to leave an abusive relationship for good.) 

It can be hard for co-workers to know when they should intervene in instances of domestic violence. To an outsider, the victims often don’t look abused but here are some warning signs that could be a sign that someone suffers from domestic abuse within your facility, and which you may want to educate your employees about:

  • often late to work and/or meetings or cancels appointments/meetings last minute;
  • excuses themselves from/declines activities they would normally enjoy;
  • becomes reserved and distant, isolating themselves from anyone that might get close (friends, family, etc.);
  • exhibits excessive privacy (over the top) concerning their personal life, especially their relationship;
  • has an increase in urgent phone calls/texts; and
  • disruptive visits by their current/former spouse.

Signs of domestic abuse are very similar to those of mental illness. Things like excessive worrying or fear, being extremely apologetic, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, withdrawal, agitation or apprehension are all common domestic abuse signs that could easily be dismissed as mental health symptoms.

Since the workplace is often the only respite survivors have, workplace violence and harassment policies need to go beyond basic procedures. Survivors of domestic violence will need time to develop trust at their workplace—abusers frequently use tactics like gaslighting, they paint their victims in a way that people believe the victim is the problem and this is a hard complex for someone on the receiving end to overcome. 

Start by making workplace violence training mandatory for all employees—this will not only get everyone trained on the policies and procedures but it will also eliminate the possibility that someone will feel singled out by attending the training. When everyone is involved, it can help reduce the stigma associated with domestic violence survivors. Start by explaining the services of your EAP and the local domestic violence support agency. Privacy and confidentiality are of the utmost importance given the nature of the situation, so explain how that is kept in your organization. Just like any other workplace procedure, workers will want to know the steps that are involved in reporting a problem (employees will not report a problem to their manager if they don’t feel they’re in a safe environment).

The key is to build awareness to eliminate the “can’t happen here” mentality that often goes along with domestic abuse. Stories of other workplace domestic violence incidents are a great way to stress the importance of getting help before it’s too late, and they also help demonstrate the fact that these incidents can happen anywhere. Hearing a story they relate to can help survivors realize what they’re going through is abuse when they try to minimize it. If you or someone you know is exhibiting signs of abuse, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE or text “START” to 88788.

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