Covid-19 lockdown: Helping colleagues who are fighting a silent battle against abuse
The restriction of movement due to lockdown has highlighted the emotional and psychological prisons of thousands who are trapped in hellish domestic violence realities. If you have never experienced this before, think of what it might be like to be held captive by kidnappers.
You are plunged into a secret terror, not knowing which moment might be your last. If you have children, your hypervigilance goes into overdrive. You decide to do whatever the kidnappers want, so that they will keep your children alive.
Imagine waking up to this reality, day in and day out. This nightmare is what thousands of women and children are living every day. Both perpetrator and victim intersect with the working world. The hostages are in plain sight. While the immediate focus for business is on keeping the doors open, there is still a responsibility to support the people that keep the business running.
If you already have support systems in place in your company, you need to prioritise communication around reminding employees about the help that they have access to. And if you don't already have systems in place, this is the time to develop mechanisms that support your most vulnerable workers.
How working from home increases the danger for domestic violence victims
Domestic violence is a complex issue as there are different levels of abuse. Many women are in abusive relationships where they feel fear and anxiety but console themselves with “at least he doesn’t hit me”. If a partner exhibits signs of manipulation, anger and control, physical abuse is almost always inevitable.
The problem is exacerbated in instances where there are children involved, because the woman feels like she needs to stay for their sake. Due to the tenuous nature of the relationship, financial instability is quite common and adds additional pressure.
The abuser will often struggle to keep a job and fails to provide a stable income. He will tend to the partner for their financial troubles but also constantly jeopardises her employment due to his jealous outbursts. With the lockdown regulations, working from home will feel like they are being caged in with their abuser.
Being able to go into an office meant that they could escape the abuse for a while and try to maintain a certain level of freedom. Now they are forced to contend with irrational behaviour and have no place to hide. There is no longer a safe space and the victim will be stretched on all fronts to survive a chaotic environment.
Prone to highly volatile and paranoid behaviour, the abuser will be reading the emails, going through the phones, questioning why meetings are being held with certain people. Abusers will use the shadows created by remote work to further isolate the victim.
Ways that you can support colleagues who might be experiencing abuse in the home:
Clearly communicate what assistance is available: Distribute information on how employees can reach out for support, while maintaining confidentiality. Even if your company doesn’t have the necessary systems in place, share information on regional and national networks that embattled employees can reach out to.
Empower staff to support their colleagues: Team members who work closely with each other will be more likely to notice behaviour of colleagues that is out of the ordinary. While working together at an office, it would be easier to notice if someone appeared shaky, distracted, nervous, anxious, confused, depressed or tearful. Some signs of detachment to look out for in remote workers include:
Repeatedly cancelling meeting attendance at the last minute
Always leave the screen off during online meetings
Doesn’t engage in meetings as much as they used to
Quality of work has diminished
Requires frequent sick leave or unpaid leave days
Team members will need to be sensitised on how to communicate with colleagues that they think might be in trouble as chances are that their partner is monitoring all communication.
Don’t try to ‘fix’ the situation: Victims of domestic abuse need professional help to regain their confidence to be able to make healthier relationship choices. Demanding that she ‘just leave’ is not going to be helpful. The most dangerous time for victims of abuse is when they try to leave, so they often feel trapped because they are too terrified of the consequences if they do try to make an escape.
Find ways to build their confidence: Victims of abuse are being broken down every day. Their confidence is being eroded as they endure intense trauma. They are using every ounce of energy to get up every day, show up for work and pretend that everything is normal. The best thing that colleagues can do for peers they suspect are enduring an abusive relationship is to be supportive, encouraging and uplifting. She needs to see herself as valuable outside of the distorted reality she is living every day. She will definitely be more likely to confide in someone she feels won’t judge her.
The shadow of domestic violence is often hard to see, which is why there needs to be an intentional light of hope that victims can walk towards. They are definitely desperate for help.
* Cheryl Benadie is an iconoclastic first generation professional on a mission to inspire hope and foster wholeness to unlock true potential. She launched Whole Person Academy to help both entrepreneurs and employees rediscover the joy of work and to thrive in the 4IR. As a survivor of various forms of abuse, her life is testament to the fact that you can heal and live, love and work from a place of wholeness.