‘Domestic abuse destroys lives. It is a cruel and complex crime that can affect anyone, leaving physical and emotional scars that can last a lifetime’1 

There has been a shift in society and a wider understanding that domestic abuse is not solely physical or emotional but can also be financial, sexual, psychological and that it can happen to anyone, regardless of their gender, age, ethnicity, socio-economic status or sexuality. During counselling training, we learn how to work with a variety of issues, but the complexity and difficulty faced by an individual experiencing domestic abuse can be hard to understand until the client arrives in our therapy room. It is important that, as part of our continuing professional development, we gain a thorough understanding of this issue, which in turn can enhance the support we provide to our clients.

According to the latest figures from the Crime Survey for England and Wales, an estimated two million adults aged 16 to 59 years have experienced domestic abuse in the last year.2 In the year ending March 2018, the police recorded 599,549 domestic abuse-related crimes. However, 225,714 arrests were made for domestic abuse-related offences, equating to 38 arrests per 100 domestic abuse-related crimes recorded.2 Late last year, my employer, Health Assured, hosted a conference on domestic abuse and the collaboration needed between interested parties to tackle its impact on the workplace. In this article, I review the progress made supporting those who have experienced domestic abuse and highlight where employers could do more. I also explore the cost to UK employers, recommending some practical steps they can take, including developing and implementing policy, managing difficult conversations and supporting staff, as well as touching on best practice and guidance for practitioners.

Setting the scene

The introduction of Domestic Violence Disclosure Schemes, such as Clare’s Law, enables individuals to ask the police about a partner's previous history of domestic violence or violent acts.3 Furthermore, the introduction of the Sentencing Council Guidelines on domestic abuse, which were revised in February 2018,4 and more recently, the landmark Domestic abuse consultation response and draft bill,5 all demonstrate a significant shift in pursuing offenders and providing support for those affected. The draft bill aims to introduce measures to address coercive control and economic abuse, address how domestic abuse affects children, transform the response of the justice system and ban the distressing practice of domestic abuse victims being cross-examined by perpetrators in the family courts. These are historic steps and, I believe, they will assist in ensuring a reduction in stigma experienced by victims and provide reassurance to individuals that action will be taken against perpetrators.

The cost to UK employers

The Home Office has published a report into the economic and social cost of domestic abuse, which reveals that, between 2016 and 2017, it cost England and Wales £66 billion.6 According to the research, the vast majority of this cost (£47 billion) is a result of the physical and emotional harm of domestic abuse. However, it also includes other factors, such as the cost to health services (£2.3 billion), police (£1.3 billion) and victim services (£724 million).6 Within this figure, the cost of domestic abuse to business is estimated at £1.9 billion a year, due to decreased productivity, time off work, lost wages and sick pay. It can potentially have an adverse impact on staff morale, as well as on an organisation’s image and reputation.6 Writing and implementing a policy The Health and Safety at Work Act states: ‘It shall be the duty of every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his employees.’7 In line with existing current legislation, while employees have a legal responsibility to report injuries at work, company policies typically focus on physical injuries.

This is reflected in a report commissioned by the Vodafone Foundation, which highlights that only five per cent of organisations have a specific policy or guidelines on domestic abuse. Furthermore, there was an average of less than one disclosure over the previous 12 months found in medium and large organisations, which indicates not enough employees feel comfortable and supported enough to raise the problem at work.8 I think these findings highlight the need for support at work and the provision of workplace counselling to offer a confidential environment where victims of abuse can feel safe enough to talk.

The consultation on the new Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill provides a good opportunity to emphasise the role of employers, and the importance of the employee-employer relationships, in helping to support those experiencing domestic abuse and to engage in prevention activities.8 A good starting point for employers, is the implementation of a workplace policy or guidance on domestic abuse. Any such policy needs to provide a statement of intent, context, definitions, responsibilities, key supporting staff and to make reference to other internal processes, policies or procedures which will help to create clear boundaries and an open workplace culture.

The creation of a policy can help create a safer culture where employees feel more able to disclose issues of domestic abuse, and feel reassured that appropriate support will be provided.9 However, while a comprehensive policy can be created with relative ease, if it is not implemented and embedded into an organisation’s working culture, there will be little to no impact. Therefore, employers need to get the foundations right and then work to ensure that culture change at work is instilled across the business.

Managing difficult conversations

There is an increased focus on managers being able to have difficult conversations, including where domestic abuse is concerned. This could be because a colleague is showing obvious physical or emotional signs, or if there are changes in their productivity at work or a change in behaviour, or if a member of staff chooses to self-disclose. If an organisation has the basics in place, the policy will help managers to explain the confidential nature of the discussion and to be clear that a disclosure will only be made where absolutely necessary. Ultimately, it’s best to be open, non-judgmental and to avoid language that indicates blame or fault, allowing plenty of time and space for the staff member to talk, following their disclosure. Any written record, including any agreed workplace adjustments, should be held outside of official employee records and stored securely.9

The manager’s role is not to deal with the abuse itself but to make it clear through a workplace policy or guidance that employees will be supported, and to outline what help is available.9 Ideally, they are a trusted person who can create a sense of safety for the member of staff. The recommended option for anyone experiencing domestic abuse is to then be referred to specialist practitioners trained to assess risk and give safety advice.

Managers and practitioners can refer to internal policies and consider existing internal support structures which are in place, eg HR, to ensure appropriate support can be offered and adjustments can be considered. It is advised that employers should signpost the employee to a specialist external domestic abuse helpline or service or an alternative support structure, such as an employee assistance programme or workplace counselling provision. There are also online resources available, such as TecSOS, an initiative that seeks to support people, through the provision of a specially adapted piece of technology that enables enhanced access to the police in an emergency, or Bright Sky, an app which provides a UK-wide directory of specialist domestic abuse support services.

Practical steps for employers

Employers have an important role to play in society’s response to domestic abuse. Not only do employers have a duty of care to their employees, they also have a legal responsibility to provide a safe and effective work environment – and preventing and tackling domestic abuse are integral to this.9

Employers should be aware that every individual's circumstances will vary and aim to work together in a proactive partnership, ensuring that the individual is comfortable with the steps being taken. The employee needs to have a sense of control over their own situation. It may be necessary to inform others within the organisation; for example, to ensure that other staff can respond safely, to implement agreed workplace adjustments, or when there is a change in line management. This should usually occur with the full knowledge and consent of the victim, and only on a need-to-know basis.2

Knowing the warning signs

The report commissioned by Vodafone demonstrated that 49 per cent of companies said domestic abuse caused lateness to work.8 This figure is an important one to consider, as many workplaces have policies on lateness. Such policies are often in place to provide adequate staffing and resource, for positive employee morale, and to meet expected productivity standards throughout an organisation. While some can often see this approach as rigid, it is also in place as an opportunity to safeguard an employee’s welfare. When an employee arrives late to work, it allows the line manager to have an open, confidential conversation with an employee in which concerns can be addressed.

This can be crucial in spotting early warning signs and supporting an employee during a potentially challenging time. While arriving on time may be habitual for many staff members, it can become an additional source of pressure for an individual when there is domestic abuse occurring. This may be particularly distressing for an individual who is deliberately being delayed by the perpetrator. This gives the perpetrator power and control over the individual’s behaviour and how the workplace may perceive them. For example, the perpetrator may hide the individual’s car keys or security pass or argue/berate them before leaving for work. It is possible that the workplace can come to some form of temporary agreement to alleviate some of the pressure on the individual which allows them to concentrate on keeping themselves safe.

Best practice for counsellors

Currently, there are no official qualifications, rules or regulations in place that stipulate what level of training a counsellor needs when dealing with domestic abuse. Therefore, counsellors can gain voluntary placements within this specialism to enhance their skills and understanding. It’s vital to access current and relevant research, to read case studies from those who have been through domestic abuse and to widen your knowledge through continued professional development related to domestic abuse.

It’s important to be aware that there are some persistent myths which exist that need to be challenged when it comes to domestic abuse. One of these is: if a survivor of domestic abuse doesn’t leave their partner, it must be because he/ she enjoys it and is masochistic. The reality is very different, as this myth shows a lack of understanding and is associated with victim blaming and pathologising. Professionals should be aware that the greatest danger and risk are when the survivor leaves their abuser. In addition, there are also many psychobiological, social and practical factors that make it extremely difficult to leave an abusive relationship.10

A counsellor can work with a client at any stage, while they are still experiencing the domestic abuse or when they are out of it. Therefore, it’s important to understand the policies and procedures in place for all eventualities, ensuring both you and the client are kept safe. If you are working for an EAP or an in-house organisation, ensure that the company’s policies encompass supporting those clients who are experiencing domestic abuse and that you are familiar with what they say.

Take additional time to consider other factors within your contract which may apply to working with victims of domestic abuse, such as out-of-hours contact, missed sessions and boundary setting. Christiane Sanderson, author of Counselling Survivors of Domestic Abuse,11 explains how being flexible about attending sessions and contact between sessions, are crucial. The individual may be in potential danger, have a lack of childcare or have to explain where they are going to their abuser. Therefore, she urges counsellors to understand this rather than question their client’s commitment to therapy.

Self-awareness is also key, paying particular attention to the power dynamics of the therapeutic relationship. Continuous supervision is necessary to ensure you are adhering to best practice and working with the client’s best interest at heart. From my experience of working in this field, I know there is often a desire to do more than counsel the client, for example trying to solve the abuse for the client by advising them on the best course of action. While it is important for an individual to be safe, the counsellor has to empower the individual to make their own choices and demonstrate that they are able to cope with the information the client is sharing, in order for them to open up further. While this may be coming from a place of best intentions, a safe and therapeutic relationship is the foundation that empowers the client to make their own choices and to grow through the ongoing support  of their counsellor.

Allow your humanity to show, identify your own beliefs and judgments, while paying attention  to the language and terminology you use, and try to avoid using labels. By demonstrating Carl Rogers’ core conditions, we can all help provide  the individual with the opportunity to grow, and demonstrate our belief in their ability to do so. Treating each client as an individual with their  own unique experience, rather than providing a robust clinical method,  is vital. Remember, psychological education can be extremely beneficial and can help individuals to feel more in control over their anxiety symptoms and their journey.

Closing thoughts

While progress has been made to address the stigma attached to domestic abuse and to improve support for those experiencing it, I believe it needs to be more widely understood that domestic violence is ‘a cruel and complex crime that can affect anyone’.1 In acknowledging this complexity, we can develop our work collaboratively and proactively to support those who may be affected by abuse. As practitioners, we need to be a voice that confirms that domestic abuse is not acceptable, and together we can empower our clients and build a culture where individuals are free from harm.

Nicola Jagielski is Associate Director, Clinical Services at Health Assured EAP. She holds clinical governance for the service, provides clinical support and guidance as required and has a particular focus on trauma.


1 Transforming the response to domestic abuse consultation response and draft bill. January 2019. [Online.] https://assets. publishing.service.gov.uk/government/ uploads/system/uploads/attachment_ data/file/772202/CCS1218158068Web_Accessible.pdf
2 Domestic abuse in England and Wales: year ending March 2018. https://www.ons.gov.uk/ peoplepopulationandcommunity/ crimeandjustice/bulletins/ domesticabuseinenglandandwales/ yearendingmarch2018
3 Clare’s Law. BBC. https://www.bbc.co.uk/ news/uk-politics-26488011
4 https://www.sentencingcouncil.org.uk/ publications/item/overarching-principlesdomestic-abuse-definitive
5 https://www.gov.uk/government/ publications/domestic-abuseconsultation-response-and-draft-bill
6 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/ government/uploads/system/uploads/ attachment_data/file/772180/horr107.pdf
7 https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ ukpga/1974/37/section/
8 Vodafone Foundation. Domestic violence and abuse: working together to transform responses in the workplace. [Online.] https://www.vodafone.com/content/dam/ vodafone-images/foundation/55376_ Vodafone_domestic_violence_report_ AW5_V2.pdf
9 Business in the Community and Public Health England. Domestic abuse: a toolkit for employers. [Online.] https://wellbeing. bitc.org.uk/sites/default/files/kcfinder/ files/bitc_phe_domestic_abuse_toolkit.pdf
10 Herman J. Trauma and recovery: the aftermath of violence – from domestic abuse to political terror. New York: Basic Books; 1992.
11 Sanderson C. Counselling survivors of domestic abuse. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers; 2008.