Domestic violence is a NZ epidemic

1 in 3 Women

One in three NZ women are physically or sexually abused by an intimate (ex) partner in their lifetime. (Fanslow et al, 2019).

The Rainbow community

Gay, lesbian, or bisexual adults are more than twice as likely to experience IPV and sexual violence. (NZ Crime and Victims Survey, 2018-2019). 

Every three minutes

NZ Police respond to a family violence episode every 3 minutes. This is up from every 6 minutes in 2013. 

Any large employer, and many smaller employers, will have employees who experience domestic violence. Increasingly, NZ businesses also want to provide a safe and supportive response to customers who experience domestic violence.

Organisations with customers representing a cross-section of the general public deal with customers experiencing domestic violence in a range of situations. Many organisations want to support their staff to be better prepared to respond to customers in these situations.

1. Social responsibility & sustainability

NZ has seen an enormous increase in reporting rates of domestic violence over the last 2 decades, likely driven by increasing public awareness. But prevalence rates have remained stubbornly static.

Taking steps to create a good domestic violence workplace programme and customer response programme demonstrates social responsibility, and proactively contributes to solving an insidious social problem. By working individually and collectively, New Zealand employers and customer- facing organisations can play a key role in addressing the epidemic of domestic violence and ultimately creating a society where domestic violence is a thing of the past. 

According to the Sustainable Business Network, ‘Creating a healthy, safe and productive workplace is the foundation for long-term business success.’ Ensuring a safe and supportive workplace environment for the many staff who experience domestic violence will be the most important way to support their wellbeing and productivity.  

2. Employee health, safety & wellbeing

Employees who experience domestic violence

Intimate partner violence (IPV) is the form of domestic violence most commonly experienced by employees. It includes actions by abusive partners that aim to undermine their partner’s employment and independence through:

  • Sabotage, e.g. hiding or destroying a partner’s work phone or laptop, making them late for work, disrupting sleep so they’re tired at work
  • Stalking: 17% of employees separated from an abusive partner reported being stalked by their ex-partners outside of their workplace or house – behaviour that is highly correlated with high risk violence (McFarlane et al, 2002)
  • Harassment, i.e. interfering with a partner working, e.g. constantly interrupting them at work with phone calls, emails, texts, etc. or coming into the workplace to distract, annoy, or monitor the person. (Swanberg et al, 2005)

A PSA member survey found, from those who experienced domestic violence while in paid employment, that “domestic violence affected the ability to get to work for 38% of participants, with 62% reporting that physical injury or restraint was responsible for their difficulties and 65% reporting that concerns over childcare were responsible. Over half (53%) reported that they needed to take time off from work because of the abuse. Most reported an impact on their work performance by either making them late for work (84%) or making them distracted, tired or unwell (16%). Just over half (53%) did not disclose their abuse to anyone in their workplace, with privacy and shame being the most commonly cited reasons.” (Rayner-Thomas, 2013)

According to the NZ Family Violence Clearinghouse (2014), “Studies have shown that women who experience intimate partner violence have difficulty maintaining consistent employment, as frequently they are forced to resign, or their positions are terminated because of the way intimate partner violence interferes with work.”

Domestic violence has an enormous impact on both mental and physical wellbeing; women who experience severe intimate partner violence are eight times more likely to attempt suicide (NZ Ministry of Justice Crime and Safety Survey, 2009). 

How employment helps someone experiencing domestic violence

For someone experiencing domestic violence, secure employment can improve or secure financial stability, promote physical safety, increase self-esteem, improve social connectedness, and ‘purpose in life’. Furthermore, the workplace can serve as a respite from the abuser, and provides important stretches of time where an employee have physical safety and can make plans to gain independence from their abusive partner.

The impact on co-workers

An Australian study showed 45% of people who experienced domestic violence while employed disclosed the abuse to work colleagues (Safe at Home, Safe at Work survey, 2011). Co-workers often know when someone at work is experiencing domestic violence, even when it’s not disclosed.

An employee’s experience of domestic violence often creates conflict and tension with co-workers (Rayner-Thomas, 2013). Co-workers may feel distressed and anxious, try to help the employee, cover for their decreased productivity or missed work, or they themselves may be directly harassed, threatened or harmed by the abusive person.

Co-workers may be traumatised by witnessing domestic violence, or experience vicarious trauma from hearing about an employee’s experience of domestic violence. This is especially the case in the aftermath of a co-worker being seriously injured or killed by an abusive (ex) partner.

Employees who have someone close to them outside of work who is experiencing domestic violence are also likely to be distracted or distressed at work, or miss work to help their friend or family member.

Employees who perpetrate domestic violence

Employees may also use work time and resources to perpetrate domestic violence, often targeting an employee in the same workplace. In addition to harming their victim, this behaviour impacts on their own wellbeing and productivity and may also harm their employer’s reputation, especially if the employee is in a senior role or works with vulnerable people.

A 2004 USA study (State of Maine, Department of Labor) of domestic violence offenders found:

  • 78% used workplace resources at least once to express remorse or anger, check up on, pressure, or threaten the victim.
  • 70% of offenders lost 15,221 hours of work time due to their domestic violence arrests.
  • 48% of offenders had difficulty concentrating at work, with 19% reporting a workplace accident or near miss from inattentiveness due to preoccupation with their relationship
  • 42% were late to work

ILO Convention to eliminate violence at work 

In 2019, the International Labour Organisation adopted Convention No.190 ‘Eliminating Violence and Harassment in the World of Work’, which included recognising that:

  • ‘violence and harassment in the world of word can constitute a human rights violation’
  • ‘violence and harassment is a threat to equal opportunities, is unacceptable and incompatible with decent work’
  • ‘violence and harassment also affects the quality of public and private services, and may prevent persons, particularly women, from accessing, and remaining and advancing in the labour market’, and that
  • ‘domestic violence can affect employment, productivity and health and safety, and that governments, employers’ and workers’ organizations and labour market institutions can help, as part of other measures, to recognize, respond to and address the impacts of domestic violence.

3. Customer care & safety

The impact on customers & frontline staff

Because of the prevalence of domestic violence, frontline staff who interact with the general public will come across customers impacted by domestic violence. This may be in obvious ways, such as witnessing someone physically assault their partner or child. Or it may be in less obvious ways, such as a customer who cannot pay their bill because of their partner’s financial abuse, or a customer that cannot make a decision without their partner’s approval.

These experiences often leave employees feeling distressed and worried about what to do or whether they did the right thing. These feelings often persist for a long time and impact on workplace wellbeing and productivity.

Without guidance or training, employees often respond to customers impacted by domestic violence in ways that are harmful to the customer. At best, these can be missed opportunities to provide support and a path to safety for someone in a time of crisis. At worst, staff may put customers in greater danger and also put your business at risk, by doing the wrong thing.

This can be even more difficult for employees who have ongoing relationships with customers, or who may see more of the signs of domestic violence because their job takes them into customers’ homes. Hairdressers, nannies, plumbers, are just a few examples.

Financial institutions: customers experiencing vulnerability

NZ financial institutions are now required by the NZ Financial Markets Authority to demonstrate how they meet the needs of customers experiencing vulnerability. Of these customers, the ones experiencing domestic violence face the greatest potential for harm when organisations do not meet their needs, i.e. they may be killed or seriously injured or may not be able to find a way out of an ongoing abusive relationship because they are entrapped by financial abuse.

Harm or an increase in risk of harm to a customer experiencing domestic violence may be caused by an individual employee’s decision or by an organisation’s routine procedures, for example by sharing their contact details with an abusive partner after they have relocated to a confidential address, or requiring that their partner agree to close a joint account.

4. Legal obligations

Providing employee entitlements under the Domestic Violence – Victims Protection Act 2018 is not enough to provide a safe and supportive workplace for staff who experience domestic violence. These entitlements are limited to paid domestic violence leave, short-term flexible working, and no adverse treatment on the basis of being affected by domestic violence. They do not include other important support provisions recommended by DVFREE, including workplace safety planning.

While the Health and Safety at Work Act does require employers to proactively identify risks (physical and  mental) to health and safety, and do what is reasonably practicable to eliminate or minimise risks, this Act has no specific requirement to identify or manage risks relating to staff affected by domestic violence

Go here for a comparison of DVFREE workplace recommendations vs legal obligations.

5. The financial cost to business

New Zealand Employers bear significant economic costs associated with domestic violence, estimated in 2014 to be at least $368 million per year. With nothing changing, those projections indicated total costs of at least $3.7 billion in the next ten years. (Kahui et al, 2014)

Adrienne had worked for a large organisation for many years. She had been physically and emotionally abused by her husband for 20 years. He worked in the same complex, in a different department. She finally decided to leave. She knew about her employer’s domestic violence policy, so she talked to HR about her situation, knowing that she would be supported. HR referred her to the Shine Helpline, and immediately put in place a security plan. Her husband’s boss also instructed him that if he entered her department, he would potentially face instant dismissal. With support from her employer and from Shine, Adrienne managed to leave her husband and stay safe.

— Adrienne's Story (not her real name)

Jason worked as a waiter. His boyfriend became increasingly abusive after they moved in together. He beat up Jason on a regular basis, and left bruises where no one could see them. Jason rang Shine’s Helpline for support because his boyfriend was harassing him at work and he was in danger of losing his job. His boyfriend started by texting 20-30 times a day. After a few days, Jason stopped responding to every text, and his boyfriend began ringing 15-20 times a night.

Other co-workers had to pick up the slack every time he took a call. Jason’s boyfriend occasionally came into the restaurant and sat at the bar keeping an eye on him, and once followed him into the kitchen to loudly accuse him of flirting with another employee. Jason’s boss told him that he needed to get his partner under control or risk losing his job. Jason was too ashamed to tell his boss what was going on at home, and thought his boss would not be supportive even if he told him. Although Shine was able to support Jason to leave his partner, the abuse at his workplace continued and some months later he was fired.

— Jason's Story (not his real name)

Anna was a highly skilled worker who got on well with her patients and colleagues, where she’d worked for 15 years. She began dating and moved in with a co-worker who soon became jealous, possessive and violent. Her boyfriend checked up on her at work throughout the day. She began coming in late or not at all. She was often preoccupied and forgetful. She was too ashamed to tell anyone what was going on, and feared she wouldn’t be believed. Her boss told her he didn’t want to lose her experience, but if she couldn’t improve her performance he would have to take action. This caused Anna greater stress and anxiety.

Eventually Anna was injured by her boyfriend, ended up in hospital and was referred to Shine. Shine helped Anna leave her boyfriend safely, but she felt terrified at work, never knowing when he would appear. Shine eventually helped Anne to relocate, which meant leaving her job. If she had been supported by her employer and kept safe at work, Anna may have found the strength to leave sooner, avoid injuries and an enormous amount of stress and trauma. She may have been able to keep her job and the organisation would have kept a highly skilled and experienced worker.

— Anna's Story (not her real name)

The manager of a retail business got in touch with Shine to discuss his concerns that a valued employee was being abused and he didn’t know how to help. With coaching from Shine, he raised the issue with Donna, and offered to support her. He brought Donna to Shine where she shared her fear of leaving her partner because of his threats to kill her. Shine and her boss helped Donna put in place a number of safety strategies, including getting a Protection Order, serving her partner with a Trespass Notice for the workplace, moving her temporarily from front desk duties, making a photo of her partner available to her workmates so they could warn her if he came to the office, and accompanying her to and from her car.

The partner was arrested and released on bail. He was later arrested again, once for breaching the Trespass Notice when he was observed by a staff member. He finally left her alone after finding that she was no longer vulnerable to his abuse. Donna is still in the job that she loves, and her boss has a staff member who is more loyal and committed than ever.

— Donna's Story (not her real name)

Janine’s relationship was great for two years. Then her partner went away on an exciting work project, began drinking and calling her all hours of the night. He was bipolar and still in a manic phase when he returned and began abusing her. One day he beat her badly. She rang police, he was arrested, and Shine began supporting her. She was in a senior work role and parenting two teenagers. In the months before the court hearing, he kept contacting her. He’d say things from ‘I love you, I’m so sorry’ to ‘It’s your fault I lost my son and I’ll kill myself.’ He attempted suicide three times. Police said he would likely go to prison. She felt guilty and wanted to withdraw charges.

Janine told her managing director what was happening. “If my partner was dying of cancer, there would have been some understanding. But my managers were uncomfortable with what I was going through and didn’t want to know. When my ex died in an accident, they couldn’t understand why I was grieving.” Suffering from depression, she went to three EAP sessions, but talking to Shine was more helpful. They reinforced what she needed to hear - that his situation wasn’t her fault, and his abuse was not okay. These messages and Shine’s referral to a good lawyer helped her get through, become stronger, and eventually find a new job with a more supportive employer.

— Janine’s Story (not her real name)

Zac started his new reception job the same day he broke off his relationship with Anton. Two days later, Anton was out in front of Zac’s office, watching him. He was there all week. Workmates started noticing. Zac was embarrassed and anxious. Zac finally went out to talk to Anton – ending up with Anton shouting at and threatening him. Zac came inside feeling humiliated. His manager asked him to come in her office. Zac was scared he would get a warning or lose his job.

Instead, Lori asked him how he was feeling. She’d seen the man outside shouting and was concerned for Zac’s safety. She reminded him about their domestic violence policy and that he had a right to be safe. She offered to help him with a workplace safety plan and to have him ring Shine for help to deal with Anton outside work. With a trespass order, a temporary shift of desk and some other support strategies, the stalking ended and Zac felt very grateful.

— Zac’s Story (not his real name)

As a victim of violence in the home, Rebecca found it difficult to get time off work while she was going through the process of leaving her abusive husband and trying to provide adequate support for her two young children through that difficult time. People in her workplace didn't understand what she was going through and saw her as an unreliable, emotional wreck. After many years of abuse, Rebecca finally left her husband with help from Shine.

According to Rebecca, “If my work had supported me through that time and given me paid leave when I needed it to deal with what was going on, I would have been in a better frame of mind and more focused on my job while I was at work. Instead, I made a lot of mistakes at work and wasn’t a very happy person to be around. A lot of things happened outside work, leaving my children and me mentally scarred because I didn’t have enough time and energy to get things sorted with our safety planning.”

— Rebecca's Story (not her real name)