MacQuarrie, Wathen and MacGregor: Workplace can lead positive change for victims of domestic violence

We know many employers remain baffled at the link between domestic violence and the workplace. In Canada, despite some high-profile tragedies, we know little about the scope of domestic violence in the workplace.

Studies show costs to the workplace as a result of domestic violence measure in the millions. Surveys from Australia, New Zealand and the U.K. demonstrate the problem impacts worker safety, productivity and well-being.

Some tragedies – including the murder of a Vancouver Starbucks manager who tried to protect his employee from an ex-spouse in 2000, or a nurse murdered at a Windsor hospital by her ex-partner in 2005 – prompted important legislative changes. British Columbia began interpreting their Occupational Health and Safety Regulation to protect workers from violence to include domestic violence. In 2010, Ontario amended its Occupational Health and Safety legislation to give employers explicit responsibilities to address domestic violence in the workplace. Manitoba followed suit shortly afterwards.

Despite these positive steps, however, compliance has lagged.

Currently, only the most innovative or most negatively impacted employers have developed policies, programs and workplace wide education about domestic violence.

But we believe our report, Can Work Be Safe When Home Isn’t?, will be a game-changer in Canadian workplaces.

Conducted in collaboration between the Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women & Children in the Faculty of Eduaction, in collaboration with colleagues in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies and the Canadian Labour Congress, it is the largest survey of its kind in the world.

With responses from more than 8,400 workers, we have overcome a longstanding misconception that domestic violence is a problem that stays at home. One third of workers report they experience domestic violence at some time in their lives and over half of them say it follows them to work. It follows them with harassing phone calls and text messages, stalking behaviour, the abuser physically coming to work or the abuser contacting supervisors and co-workers.

Respondents provided examples of this behaviour from their own lives:

  • “I was tired and distracted, yet work was a place where I felt safe.”
  • “The domestic violence caused unease between me and my co-workers because I had to miss work or sometimes cried. Also, some people felt helpless; they would have liked to intercede, but did not dare for fear of endangering me or themselves.”
  • “(The abuser) would phone my workplace to see what time I had left, and phoned when I arrived to make sure I was actually going to work.”

Even with the legislative protections offered by some provinces, workers experiencing domestic violence have not come forward for fear of being judged or losing their jobs. These workers need a supportive environment where they are encouraged to disclose the abuse and be assured of a supportive response. Breaking the isolation, and talking about it, is the first step in a healing process. It is also an opportunity for the workplace to implement a safety plan, creating a more productive environment where workers can focus on the job knowing safety has been well thought out.

This report takes the first step of identifying the scope and impact of domestic violence on workers and workplaces. Immediate next steps include encouraging the use of these results to establish proactive practices to address the impact of domestic violence at work. To that end, the Canadian Labour Congress has requested Kellie Leitch, Federal Minister of Labour, organize a roundtable for representatives from all levels of government, unions, employers and domestic violence experts to discuss how we begin to move forward.

The vision is large and includes measures such as:

  • Following the lead of Ontario and Manitoba in amending Occupational Health & Safety legislation to place positive obligations on employers to protect workers from domestic violence;
  • Including domestic violence-related amendments in federal and provincial employment standards that give the right to request flexible working arrangements and entitlement to paid domestic violence leave;
  • Prohibiting discrimination against those who experience domestic violence by including it as a protected ground in Human Rights legislation;
  • Negotiating specific supports into collective agreements, including paid domestic violence leave;
  • Developing innovative programs like Unifor’s Women’s Advocate Program; and
  • Educating managers, supervisors and workers about domestic violence in the workplace, and providing specific protocols and tools to protect and support victims and intervene with perpetrators.

A parallel survey of offenders is also being planned by our research team to help us understand how interventions in the workplace can reduce their use of violence and its impact on productivity and safety.

At an international level, we are comparing the Canadian data to other national surveys and linking this work via the new DV@Work Network, an international collaboration led by our Canadian research team.

Improving the workplace response to domestic violence will require a multi-pronged approach by legislators, employers, unions and advocates to protect and support victims and assist perpetrators in changing their behaviour. Ultimately, preventing violence and its consequences is a collective social challenge; one place that positive change can happen – for victims, offenders and employers – is the workplace.

Barb MacQuarrie is the community director of the Centre for Research & Education on Violence against Women & Children in Western’s Faculty of Education. Nadine Wathen is an associate professor and faculty scholar and Jennifer C.D. MacGregor is a postdoctoral fellow, both in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies.