Phoebe Arslanagić-Wakefield is a Researcher at Bright Blue.
Office lights across the UK are being switched off once more as Omicron emerges after but a few halcyon months of Covid optimism. Now, many employees are being asked or told to work from home again.
For lots of us, a return to our home ‘offices’ means a return to an uncomfortable seat in a noisy kitchen, to dodgy internet and attention-seeking pets that howl during virtual meetings. Or, perhaps worse, to a desolate desk in a bedroom corner, devoid of the pleasant chatter of co-workers.
However, with the rise of Omicron and the implementation of Plan B, a minority of people are going back into home working situations that are not only simply unpleasant or inconvenient, but dangerous.
Troublingly, Bright Blue research published earlier this month found that between March 2020 and February 2021, home workers have been over ten times more likely than non-home workers to report experiencing domestic abuse (11 per cent versus one per cent). What we have uncovered in terms of disabled workers is even worse – 27 per cent of disabled home workers report experiencing domestic abuse during the pandemic.
Our findings illuminate the plight of those trapped in their homes with abusers during the pandemic, fearing for their lives and physical safety, in addition to the economic, social and health stresses that have burdened the entire nation since March 2020.
In addition to the marked surges in demand for domestic abuse support services during the pandemic, a recent report from an NGO coalition, which includes Women’s Aid and Respect, shows how the pandemic made life more difficult and dangerous for domestic abuse victims in a myriad of ways.
That includes making it more practically complicated to leave potentially life-threatening situations, but also reducing the number of social situations in which someone, such as co-worker or shop assistant, may notice that something is very wrong and offer help.
In short, the excision of many from their places of work during the pandemic has acted to underline the support that offices and all external places of work can offer domestic abuse victims and survivors as places of refuge and a source of vital economic independence that can prevent financial control by abusers.
But even outside of pandemic times, too many victims of domestic abuse lose the critical lifeline, financial and otherwise, provided to them by their employment as a direct result of the abuse they face. That can be because of perpetrators actively sabotaging their ability to work, but also because of the time off that they may need to take, which can be last-minute and urgent.
As Paul Scully, BEIS Minister, highlighted earlier this year, as many as one in five domestic abuse victims may need time off work as a result of abuse. Clearly, this is not only a pandemic problem and it will not go away when restrictions finally lapse.
The Government does recognise the importance of employment to victims and the role that employers can and should play in supporting these employees, and launched a review into workplace support for domestic abuse victims and survivors and identifying an “unmet need” for more flexibility and time off work. But in light of our findings and the harsh lessons that can be drawn from the pandemic, Bright Blue is calling on the Government to move quickly in response to domestic abuse, and introduce a new right for all employees alongside its work from home guidance: the right to domestic abuse leave.
Renewing annually, this policy would grant all employees the automatic right to five days paid and five days unpaid domestic abuse per year. The leave could be claimed using a wide range of types of proof, including retroactively, from doctors’ letters to court orders. Flexible, accessible and functional, this mirrors the right to domestic abuse leave already possessed by workers living in our commonwealth friends, New Zealand and Australia.
Instantly, this policy would act to increase the ability of domestic abuse victims to keep their jobs, preserving not only their economic independence but also access to the safe harbour and moral support of colleagues provided by the workplace, which many home workers have so sorely missed during lockdowns.