Why EAP is not the answer to domestic violence in the workplace

Sara’s partner had assaulted her badly a handful of times and had an unpredictable temper. He was unemployed and living off her income. If she ever hinted at wanting to break up with him, he would become angry and threatening. He insisted on driving her to work every day and frequently taking her out to lunch, but would often make her late for work or late back from lunch. 

When Sara’s boss sat her down to talk about her chronic lateness, Sara broke down and told her what had been going on with her boyfriend. Her boss was sympathetic and suggested she see an EAP counsellor. Sara agreed to go to EAP to make her boss happy, but never followed up to see an EAP counsellor because, in her words, “I was not the one with the problem, he was. I just didn’t know how to get out of the relationship safely and EAP wasn’t going to help with that.”

EAP can be very effective at helping employees resolve personal problems that may be adversely affecting their work performance. But counselling is only useful if the person being counselled has some control over the problem, and this is simply not the case with a victim of domestic violence, as it is only the perpetrator who can choose whether or not to use violence and controlling behaviours. 

EAP counselling can be useful for victims of domestic violence. It can, for example, help them understand that their partner is abusing them, that the abuse is not okay and that they are not to blame. However, to achieve these ends, counsellors must understand and recognise the dynamics of abuse, which is sadly not the case for many counsellors, as there are still no required domestic violence competencies in counselling degree programmes. 

Shine has heard countless stories of domestic abuse victims whose counsellors never named the behaviours being experienced as abuse and never told the victim that it wasn’t okay and wasn’t their fault. Instead, counsellors asked about feelings, or what the person might be able to do to build trust and reduce conflict in their relationship – an entirely inappropriate way to support a victim of domestic violence.

Even when an employee experiencing domestic violence is fortunate to get an EAP counsellor with a specialist understanding of the issue, they are rarely going to get what they really need at that point– help to be safe and support to deal with the practical difficulties of their situation and maintain their employment. 

That is why DVFREE recommends that employers focus on three ways to help their staff experiencing domestic violence:

  1. Protect the employee from abuse while they are at work
  2. Provide practical support to during a time of crisis, e.g. paid leave for court dates, lawyer visits, etc.
  3. Help to link the employee with Shine, the local women’s refuge or another specialist domestic violence service provider that can help the employee with safety planning outside of the workplace. This may include going into refuge, advocating with other local agencies such as police and Oranga Tamariki, supporting them through a court process and so on.

EAP can complement this support by providing a safe place for an employee to talk about what’s going on in their personal life when they are ready to do that, whether that’s specifically about the abuse they’ve suffered or a totally unrelated issue.

Our DVFREE Guidelines for Policy and Procedures make the following recommendations for employers in regard to EAP:

Wherever staff can find information about accessing EAP directly, there must also be information for staff experiencing domestic violence that includes:

  • Shine’s Helpline and website (and/or contact details for other specialist services), and an explanation that Shine (or other specialist service) is likely to be better placed than EAP to address safety concerns and coordinate with police and other key agencies
  • The internal help-seeking pathway, i.e. how to contact a First Responder, in order to access support as in the organisation’s domestic violence policy

We also recommend that employers discuss this approach and negotiate an agreement with their EAP provider, so that if an EAP counsellor assesses that an employee is experiencing domestic violence, the counsellor will:

  • offer them information about the Shine Helpline, or similar service, and
  • alert them to the organisation’s policy and internal help-seeking pathway so that they can also be supported by their employer to become safe.

Employers may also want to negotiate with their EAP provider for all EAP counsellors to:

  • Routinely screen for domestic violence and refer individuals who disclose current abuse to Shine or similar service
  • Be required, or encouraged, to attend training on domestic violence screening and intervention

You can order the full set of DVFREE Guidelines on Policy and Procedures through Shine’s webshop.