Since Covid-19 lockdowns began in March of 2020, many companies have adjusted by offering “work from home” options for their employees, and some are now beginning to resume in-person business at stores, offices, and other facilities. However, recent studies indicate that reports of intimate partner abuse around the world have increased dramatically over the past few months, in what UN chief António Guterres referred to as a “horrifying global surge in domestic violence”. This recent rise requires employers to expand outreach efforts to abused workers, but first they need to understand why the increase is happening, and how victims are coping with domestic violence (DV) during the pandemic.
The Covid-19 related escalation of abuse is distressing yet unsurprising to the many DV experts that joined me in predicting a spike early on. Now, our dark portent has been confirmed by statistical evidence, including one study from Brigham Young University which found that DV related emergency calls to police have increased by 10.2% in 14 metropolitan areas around the U.S. (1). This indicates that more abuse incidents are indeed taking place as couples quarantine together at home amidst economic and health stressors, increases in substance use and mental health issues, and a lack of access to personal and institutional support systems. But as a greater level of data is collected and interpreted, disturbing trends are being revealed regarding the severity and frequency of DV related injuries. One recent radiology journal paper found that the number of DV injuries has grown by 1.8 times as compared to three years earlier and the amount of “deep” injuries has increased by roughly 25%. The analysis also found a two-fold rise in the number of “high risk” cases as determined by mechanism. Researchers noted that while DV injuries most commonly occur to the head and neck, the location of the severe injuries they observed tended to be less obvious, and most often seen in victims who were punched, kicked or hit repeatedly in the abdomen and chest (2). Similarly, another medical study revealed that 28 percent of DV victims who came to one large city’s emergency room required inpatient hospitalization for their injuries and 13 percent required major medical treatment (3).
Most victims of physical abuse are employed, and nearly half have sustained some kind of DV related injury. The Family Violence Prevention Fund tells us that 42 percent of women who have been subjected to physical or sexual violence by a partner have experienced injuries as a result (4). In fact, while DV affects both men and women, it is the most common cause of injury for females ages 15-44 (5). As a survivor of domestic violence, I know that while these numbers are high, they probably aren’t even scratching the surface. Research shows that only 34% of people who are hurt by intimate partners receive medical care for their injuries (6). The rest do not, perhaps because their abuser won’t let them, or because they lack health insurance, transportation, or citizenship status. In addition, many hospitals mandate a call to police when a patient appears to have been assaulted, and some DV victims might not feel ready or safe enough to involve law enforcement. In many cases, injured DV victims treat themselves at home or lie to medical staff and others about how the injury occurred. Abused workers may call in sick due to injuries or refuse to appear on video conferencing calls because they don’t want their cuts and bruises to be seen by co-workers and supervisors. Sadly, these employees may not disclose the violence until it becomes too dangerous to hide. According to one U.K. survey, women experience an average of 35 episodes of domestic violence before seeking help (7).
Reporting DV is hard enough for someone who knows they can afford to move residences, keep their current job and get immediate professional help, so just imagine how challenging it would be during a pandemic lockdown. Even victims that feel brave and supported enough to take that step know there will be both a diminished response and reduced options for them when they do come forward. For example, since the Covid-19 quarantines began, many court hearings have been delayed, some victim services organizations and shelters have closed, and a great number of household incomes have been drastically cut or lost altogether. Although the rates of coronavirus infection are slowly diminishing, the impact on society is more visible than ever. Employees experiencing intimate partner abuse at home will continue to do so when they return in person, so an employer’s window of opportunity to get ahead of this problem is rapidly closing. Now is the time for organizations to pull together and reach out to members of their workforce who may be experiencing DV. Luckily, doing so may be easier than we think.
If your company has employees working from home or onsite, consider checking in with them more often, and using conversational guidelines designed to screen for DV. Distribute helpful tools like the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-SAFE) through channels such as internal facing websites, memos, posters, or paycheck inserts. Train human resources, security, and management professionals on how to identify and assist abuse victims, while ensuring that your workplace policy takes a strong stance against violence both on and off site. Refer to DV advocates for help with developing in-home safety plans for known victims and educate your team on local resources that may be able to offer shelter and other aid during the pandemic. These are just some of the many techniques employers can use to increase overall safety at home and on the job. If you would like to know more about how to prevent, assess, and manage domestic violence in the workplace, please contact us via firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
1) “Sheltering in Place and Domestic Violence: Evidence from Calls for Service during COVID-19”. Leslie, E. & Wilson, R. Journal of Public Economics. July 20, 2020
2) “Exacerbation of Physical Intimate Partner Violence during COVID-19 Lockdown.” Gosangi, B. et al., Radiology. Aug 13 2020 https://doi.org/10.1148/radiol.2020202866
3) “Violence-related Injuries Treated in Hospital Emergency Departments”. Rand, Michael R. 1997. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. Washington, DC.
4) “The Facts on Health Care and Domestic Violence”. Family Violence Prevention Fund. http://www.futureswithoutviolence.org/userfiles/file/HealthCare/health_care.pd f.
5) Canadian Family Physician. Volume 45: October 1999. Page 2322
6) “Nonfatal Domestic Violence”. Truman, J. & Morgan, R. U.S. Department of Justice, 2003–2012 . NCJ 244697
7) UK Department of Health. Domestic violence: a resource for healthcare professionals. London: HMSO, 2000.