With the advent of COVID-19, workplaces are busy putting in place measures to ensure flexibility in working from home. But what if your home is that most dangerous place you can be? For many women this will be the case, with one in four women at some stage in their adult lives experiencing physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner from the age of 15 years, a statistic that persists regardless of culture, background, or socio-economic status. (ABS 2017. Personal Safety Survey, Australia, 2016, ABS cat. no. 4906.0. Canberra: ABS. “Intimate partner” includes a current or former cohabiting partner and non-cohabiting partners and dates) What we also know is that the rates and severity of domestic violence is also increasing alongside COVID-19 as additional stress and pressure reach householders and families become subject to isolation and social distancing measures (1).
So what are the responsibilities of employers in this space? The harmonised work health and safety (WHS) laws require that organisations that employ paid workers ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the physical and mental health and safety of its workers and "to eliminate risks to health and safety, so far as is reasonably practicable; and if it is not reasonably practicable to eliminate risks to health and safety, to minimise those risks so far as is reasonably practicable." (Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Cth) s 17) In the context of COVID-19, it is important to follow the advice from NSW Health (2).
However, the advice provided to date is not prescriptive in requiring people to work from home. Where workplaces decide to implement working from home measures, they must conduct an audit of the home office (3). As part of this audit, workplaces are required to consider "relevant needs or issues for health, safety and wellbeing when working from home". It is at this point that employers should be identifying risks to safety for employees in working from home as a result of the violence or abuse they may be experiencing there.
How do workplaces have this conversation? Simple measures can be put in place to ensure screening is undertaken in a safe, confidential and sensitive manner. Forms can include a list of the types of barriers to working from home, which may include shared childcare responsibilities, overcrowding from other family members, a lack of appropriate facilities, as well as risks of violence and abuse so that workers are not required to indicate the reason for them not wanting to work from home, and workers can then be provided with an option of speaking with someone within the organisation with whom they trust about any of the issues which may exist preventing them from being able to effectively work from home. Managers should be trained in how to respond appropriately to disclosures of domestic and family violence, and the organisation should have a protocol in place for offering referrals to support services for employees who disclose violence and abuse.
The next steps are for workplaces to put in places measures to support employees with their safety planning. This, along with responding to disclosures is something that workplaces can obtain training on from Workplace Equality and Respect trainers with Our Watch.
COVID-19 has provided us with a great deal of challenges and these challenges continue to change and grow day by day as we navigate through this crisis, but what we know is, if we work together at this time in the most proactive way possible, we will get through this and come out stronger on the other side. To achieve this, however, we must put safety first - the safety of all workers, including women experiencing violence and abuse in their homes.