9th to 15th May 2022 was Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK and the theme was loneliness. If you have been championing this within your workplace, have you also considered domestic abuse in the conversation?
In this blog, how mental health, loneliness and domestic abuse intersect is going to lead us to consider what we can do to make things better for those who we might encounter in the workplace who are affected.
Let’s start by considering how the experience of domestic abuse could be a trigger for mental health difficulties such as depression and anxiety.
I’d like to share a couple of clips with you that were gathered from domestic abuse survivors who shared testimony of their experiences with us for the making of our soundscape Us Too, which is one of the artworks we use in our workplace training. Us Too is a piece of music interwoven with real survivor testimony designed to show the breadth and diversity of people affected by domestic abuse.
As you listen, think about how domestic abuse might be a causal factor for mental health difficulties:
In hearing these stories from Victoria and Alma, of constant put downs chipping away at a person’s self-confidence or the helpless feeling of there being no way out, we can see that this statistic from the mental health foundation indicates a strong causal relationship between domestic abuse and mental health difficulty:
30-60% of women with a mental health problem have experienced domestic violence
- 86% of HR leads agree employers have a duty of care to support employees with regards to domestic abuse
- ONLY 5% of employers had a specific policy in place to cover domestic abuse among their workforce
- COMPARED TO 68% with a specific wellbeing policy
- OR 41% with a mental health policy
To me, these figures suggest that employers tend to think that if they’re addressing mental health and / or wellbeing, they’ve implicitly ticked off domestic abuse as well. But is this right?
Now as we know the theme for mental health awareness week this year was loneliness and I’m really interested in the graphic (left) used as part of the MHAW campaign, which very much suggests that mental health is something to do with the individual and something they themselves have to deal with. Now clearly our personal wellbeing is an individual matter, but where we’re talking about domestic abuse, this isn’t just something we’re going through as an individual – there’s another party involved.
I’ve got a couple more examples from Us Too for you to have a listen to: two more from Victoria, describing events that happened before the point at which she described herself as suicidal in the clip you have already heard and then we additionally have a clip from L.
(For reference, whilst the voices you are hearing are real survivors sharing their stories, all of the names are pseudonyms to protect the anonymity of those who bravely shared their stories with us)
As you listen to these clips, consider how you think each of their partner’s behaviour contributed to each of these individuals’ experiencing loneliness, which could in turn have contributed to mental health difficulties.
“He would accuse me of having relationships at work or flirting with the boss, none of which was the case. It was the lever he used to say, “Well, if you were that bothered about my feelings, you would just leave.” And he made it so difficult. He would turn up at work & meet me from work & take me to work & turn up at lunchtime; made it so difficult to actually hold down a job that the easiest thing became to just give it up.”
Hopefully you picked up on the way in which the survivors we spoke to were being isolated from friends, family, work colleagues and social events through the behaviour of their partners. And given these behaviours, it’s worth noting some statistics, again taken from the Vodafone report:
- 16% of the companies had shared that domestic abuse had led to employees leaving their roles
- 25% said harassment occurred within the workplace
- 17% said it had caused security issues for other employees
- Whilst a phenomenal 75% of employed partner violence victims are affected by interference tactics that can be used to exert control over the victim’s employment or job opportunities
So we can see that whilst there’s a powerful connection between domestic abuse, loneliness and mental health, the dynamics of domestic abuse add in an extra complexity and specificity that we need to take into account if we’re going to create a workplace supportive of domestic abuse survivors, as well as those experiencing mental health challenges where domestic abuse has not been a causal factor.
And we’re going to extend our thinking about this for a moment…
When we think about the loneliness and isolation that Victoria and L experienced as a result of their partners’ behaviour, we need to ask ourselves why the perpetrators in question would be doing that? What were they hoping to achieve?
Fundamentally, domestic abuse is about power and control, and the abuse a victim experiences can take a range of different forms depending on the chosen tactics an abuser thinks will help them get control. We don’t tend to use the term domestic violence within our work for this reason – whilst many still think of domestic abuse as including physical violence, it may not, in reality, feature, if the controlling partner doesn’t “need” to use this to get their way.
We have already seen a few of the ways in which control may be used to isolate a partner in the examples we’ve heard. But let’s have a look at a clip from our film Make Do and Mend – what additional controlling tactics you can see being used here that contribute to Dorothy’s isolation?
I’m sure you will have picked up on the way in which financial abuse contributed to Dorothy’s experience of isolation, but the aspect of geographical location is really pertinent as well, as there was an important report published by the National Rural Crime Network in 2019. Here’s a little extract from a BBC news article that covered the report:
“Rural victims were half as likely to report their abuse to others, and experienced abuse for 25% longer… rural isolation is often used as a weapon by abusers… Physical isolation is arguably the best weapon an abuser has and has a profound impact on making the victim feel quite literally captive… abusers move victims to rural settings to further isolate them or systematically use isolation to their advantage if they already live in an isolated place. This not only helped abusers control their victims while in the relationship, but made it harder for victims to escape that abuse.”
So we can see that in a range of different ways it is absolutely not an accident that a domestic abuse victim would experience loneliness and isolation. And we need to bring this awareness to the way we might reach out to a colleague who’s struggling.
What we also then need to consider is how our responses as bystanders intersect with what victims are experiencing, including how this might add to their loneliness and isolation. We’ve got another quotation from Victoria, as well as clips from Ester and Elizabeth to help us explore this.
What it is about the bystander responses in each case that might contribute towards the loneliness experienced by each of the victims?
“My Mum was like, “But he’s so lovely and he’s so good looking and he clearly idolises you, you know, what’s your problem?””
The implication is that many of us in our unthinking responses might unwittingly be making a domestic abuse victim’s experience of loneliness worse through ignoring, denying, or disbelieving their experience – effectively giving the message that we don’t want to hear it which is going to feel like we’re telling the person they need to go off and suffer it alone.
And this brings us to start thinking about what it is that we can do in our workplace context.
Going back to the Vodafone report, we can see that, of the 200+ companies surveyed, there was an average of 0.5 disclosures of abuse made in each organisation in the preceding 12 months. 0.5! That’s less than a whole person.
From the examples we’ve heard so far, what do you think could be the reasons that so few people come forward to say what is going on?
Listen back to the clip we shared of L, above. What does L’s description suggest about the fundamental experience of domestic abuse that might affect our willingness to come forward?
For me, what we can see from this example is that hiding what is going on is part of the victim’s experience of coercive control. They have been intimidated into doing what their controlling partner says and are conscious that their partner would not want them to share their internal relationship dynamics. There may be fear at play of what they would do if they found out they’d shared anything.
What was really nice amidst the sadness of many of the stories gathered in the making of Us Too was when we heard the aspect of Victoria’s story depicted here in this illustration (left).
After the experience above, where we saw Victoria having been harassed into leaving her job, she was isolated in her flat, with no financial capability to escape. Her neighbours had heard sounds that made them concerned and notified the landlord, who decided to take action to support her into a separate, safe flat without a deposit. She didn’t come forward. But nonetheless someone noticed and took action.
Let’s turn to consider an example from Kit about why it was hard for them to come forward but also what might be the key to enabling our colleagues to feel it would be ok to disclose what was going on?
For me, this points to a circular problem for companies and we have some interesting examples to back this up. In 2021, we collaborated with Durham University academic, Dr Stephen Burrell, on a survey exploring gender equality in the north-east business sector, following the first year of the pandemic, during which multiple reports indicated the incidence of domestic abuse had been exacerbated.
We found that:
- 45% of respondents were unsure whether their business does a good job of addressing domestic abuse
whilst a further
- 19% disagreed or strongly disagreed that their business was doing a good job of addressing domestic abuse
Our participants told us
“I’ve seen a lot of work being done on wellbeing but no mention of domestic abuse.”
“My organisation have not done anything to address the possibility a member of staff could be suffering domestic abuse…the opportunity of support has not been shared for a impacted member of staff to have the opportunity to reach out.”
“It’s never been mentioned in any company awareness campaign.”
“Domestic abuse has never been discussed, mentioned, nor is it in a policy now or during the pandemic.”
“I’m not sure any of the team would know what to look out for and what to do if they suspected it.”
These comments hint at the circular problem – if a company doesn’t receive disclosures, perhaps in part due to the dynamics of abuse described by L, they assume there is no problem. But the positive examples we received in our report in contrast really reinforce what Kit shared with us…
“Our work environment is open enough that people can discuss personal things and we have 2 mental health trained staff as well so staff feel they would not be judged.”
“We have a member of staff who was in an abusive relationship. We were able to support them and ultimately helped them to move on. This demonstrates to all staff members that our organisation is supportive in deeds not just words. Stress levels and stress management techniques are thought about and part of the routine here. It makes for a more productive workforce.”
…emphasising that if we don’t make it ok to raise domestic abuse within our company culture, those whose confidence has been diminished by an abusive partner are unlikely to feel comfortable to come forward and make a disclosure. Whereas if we create an open and supportive company culture, we might find someone builds the confidence to come forward.
We have seen this happen with one of our training clients. Shortly after we had delivered our training at Believe Housing, one of their staff members came forward to disclose that she was experiencing domestic abuse and it had pushed her to the point of not being able to cope any more. She was ready to hand in her notice. But our client was so committed to their duty of care, and aware that if she left her role, her options to leave her partner would be greatly reduced as she would lose her financial independence, so they looked at a range of ways they could support this staff member. She remained in post and later told them,
“I can’t tell you the difference you have made to my life.”
They created the conditions for her to speak out and this enabled them to help her.
So we can see that we have the potential to ensure someone who is experiencing domestic abuse does not have the loneliness of that experience compounded by an organisational culture that avoids the topic, doesn’t make a space for them to feel safe and confident enough bring it forward, and doesn’t receive the disclosure with disbelief. Rather the loneliness can be relieved.
I love this quotation from an audience member who saw Make Do and Mend when it was originally staged as a play in Northeast theatres.
“I’m not crazy. I’m not alone and there is a future”
It really shows the impact we can achieve by making it okay to bring domestic abuse into the open as a topic.
But there’s one more angle I would like for us to consider with regards to workplace disclosures. Have a read and a listen to this additional example of Elizabeth’s story from our Us Too soundscape, and consider what you think this has to do with the rate of workplace disclosures.
“There’s an assumption when you talk about coercive control, you can always see that people are thinking, “That would never happen to me; I would be cleverer than that.” So there’s an assumption that, if you are a victim, “You must be very naïve or you must be not very bright.” So if you look at some educated women in quite powerful middle class jobs, accountants, doctors, women who are seen as intelligent, that’s another reason why people would think they can’t possibly be a victim of coercive control, because they think they would be too clever to let that happen to them. And there’s not an understanding of really how subversive that is and cleverly manipulative that is.”
Going back to the Vodafone report, HR Leads estimated fairly accurately the proportions of those in the general public affected by domestic abuse, saying…
- 26% of women
- 15% of men were likely to be affected
But only estimated that
- 4% of their own workforce were affected.
We could see this as a hangover of class-based prejudice about domestic abuse as a working class issue, the NIMBYism of, “it couldn’t possibly be happening to people like us” – whether by this we mean professional, well-educated, or middle class.
If we recall the clip we heard from Kit earlier through this lens of diversity and representation, and bear in mind that Kit is a non binary person in a lesbian relationship, what else does this indicate about what we need to share in the open inclusive workplace culture we want to create?
The key message here is that we need to challenge the idea that domestic abuse only happens to certain people and only at the hands of certain people.
Let’s summarise then, from the examples we have explored, from the survivors featuring in our soundscape, to our survey respondents and our client’s employee, what else we can do in our workplace setting to support those affected and perhaps alleviate some of the loneliness they may be experiencing:
- Make space to listen to survivors
- Create a culture where it is ok to talk about domestic abuse
- Don’t assume that not disclosing means everything is fine – ask if you aren’t sure someone is ok
- Pay attention to subtle factors like whether someone has stopped engaging in workplace social activities
What’s more, we need to share the kinds of specialist support that are available to all the different kinds of people experiencing different kinds of abuse. This spread comes from the personal learning journal that accompanies the e-learning version of our training:
The Vodafone report we have referenced within this blog cites the key barriers that stand in the way of companies taking concerted action on domestic abuse as part of their commitment to the mental health of their employees:
- Low awareness of the issue
- Lack of training
- Lack of policy
- Unwillingness of staff to discuss the issues
- Lack of skills to help someone affected
- Lack of clarity about the external support available
You’ve already increased your awareness of this issue and the external support available by reading this blog.
In terms of training and skills, this is something we can support you with via our training, the e-learning variant of our training if it is easier to roll this knowledge with large numbers of your staff digitally, or via the train-the-trainer variant we can deliver to companies who already have some knowledgeable staff members who would like the opportunity to use our creative tools to share more widely with colleagues using our live training model.