Sarasota, FL (WorkersCompensation.com) – Wearing a turtleneck in the middle of summer; a bruise from a supposed fall on the face but the worker’s nose is not injured; rushing to settle a claim before reaching maximum medical improvement. Those are among the many signs of potential domestic abuse.
The subject is outside the comfort zone of many employers. Yet it’s a pervasive issue and one that should be on the radar of workers’ compensation stakeholders.
“It’s having a tremendous impact with respect to delayed recovery,” said Geralyn Datz, a psychologist who specializes in violence. “From a medical standpoint, it’s widely known that emotional stress can limit physical recovery from anything.”
Datz and other experts outlined some potential signs of domestic abuse among employees, what employers can and should do when they see it, and the resources that are available, during a recent Hot Seat webinar, produced by WorkersCompensation.com.
What It Is
Physical abuse is among the most discussed forms of domestic abuse, but certainly not the only one. There’s also emotional abuse, verbal abuse, even social abuse – a form of harassment from social media. Abusive partners can have spiritual control over the victim, or stalk them.
“Due to COVID, financial abuse has been a big entity that has not allowed survivors the opportunity to leave,” said Marsha Travis, acting director of Favorhouse of Northwest, a Florida-based domestic violence shelter. “The most underreported type of abuse is sexual abuse, especially when it comes to intimate relationships. It’s difficult to prove. It puts hardships on the family, allows [the issues] to sometimes spill into the workforce. If they are out due to abuse, what is the impact on coworkers or the company as a whole?”
Statistics from workplacesrespond.org show the magnitude of the problem:
- 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men in the U.S. experience domestic violence
- Nearly 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men experience rape during their lifetimes
- 4 in 5 women deal with sexual harassment in the workplace
- 16 percent of women and 5 percent of men have been stalked in their lifetimes.
The stigma and shame often associated with domestic violence makes it that much more difficult for employees to come forward or employers to broach the subject if they suspect it. There are certain indications that may be indicative of problems, however.
“One of the things we look at is those unexplained injuries,” Travis said. “Somebody doesn’t wear makeup, but all of a sudden does … changing personality, clothing changes, staying late and not wanting to go home.”
In one instance a supervisor noticed a worker was not responding to her. “What happened is she couldn’t hear because she had been punched in the side of the head,” Travis said.
“The perpetrators are very good at masking their harm. That is part of the dynamic here,” Datz said. “I’ve observed boxing of the ear, post concussive stuff.”
The signs of domestic abuse can vary widely. In some instances, for example, the abuser may want the injured partner to remain in the home and, therefore, discourages the worker’s efforts to heal and return to work. In others, where financial abuse is an issue, the perpetrator may push the injured worker to a settle before it’s appropriate. Claims professionals who see a spouse or partner pushing to end the claim too soon may want to find out what is going on.
“Are there possibly victims that don’t know they are victims,” asked Judge David Langham, Deputy Chief Judge of Compensation Claims for the Florida Office of Judges of Compensation Claims at the Division of Administrative Hearings, and co-host of the webinar.
“Yes, they are being groomed,” Datz responded. “There’s a psychological mindset, ‘it’s all your fault.’ There’s no room for anyone to be right but the perpetrator.”
What Can be Done
Addressing the issue of domestic abuse is a delicate issue and must be done with extreme care. An employer who suspects a worker may be experiencing domestic violence should aim to make the person feel safe enough to share their situation – if they choose to.
Workplacesrespond.org advises the first step is to acknowledge a change in behavior.
Saying: ‘You’ve been getting a lot of phone calls and texts which have been making you upset. What is going on?’ is the wrong approach, as it tells the person how the employer is feeling and sounds judgmental. A better way to approach the worker would be to use ‘I statements’ and center on observation and concern, but not make assumptions. ‘I’ve noticed that you’ve been getting a lot of calls and texts lately and I have noticed you seem upset after receiving them.’
Being empathetic and supportive is vital, and that too can be conveyed appropriately or incorrectly. Saying, ‘Let’s go to HR and report the individual who has been harassing you. We can’t let them get away with it,’ tells the employee what they should do and provides no alternatives. A better approach would be to say, ‘Here are the options that you have to report this behavior. If this is something you would like to pursue, I can help you through the process.’ That gives the person the necessary information and is focused on their choices and wishes.
Providing additional resources for the employee can be lifesaving, but should be done keeping the worker’s interests in the forefront. Saying, ‘Hey, did you reach out to any of the resources I shared? Why
not?’ is more about the person offering the help than the individual and their needs. Instead, saying ‘I’d like to check-in with you in a week if that’s okay. How would you prefer we connect?’ puts it in the control of the worker.
Employers can direct someone who needs help to the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) TTY: 1-800-787-3224 Text: ‘START’ to 88788
One thing employers need to understand is that a domestic abuse survivor will not act until they are ready to do so. “You could provide them with all the support, resources, but if that person is not ready to leave the relationship and utilize the resources, all anyone can do is provide the resources,” said Lori Prettyman, an attorney with Favorhouse. “It’s one reason victims become isolated; family members become frustrated when the person doesn’t leave the relationship … when people know what’s going on it can be hard to be supportive if the survivor does not leave.”
It may take multiple attempts before the person leaves – if at all. There may be children involved, or transportation issues, or language barriers – any number of reasons the person does not leave the relationship.
“Leaving is a process, it doesn’t happen overnight,” Travis said. “We can have all these things in place but it’s up to the survivor if and when they are willing to leave the relationship.”