Domestic Violence – the ‘Shadow Pandemic’: A Concern for Employers

Nancy Grover

Sarasota, FL (WorkersCompensation.com) – Along with depression, suicidal thoughts and substance abuse, domestic violence incidents have skyrocketed during the current pandemic. The increased rates should serve as a wake up call for employers as they reintegrate their employees back into the workplace, according to a forensic psychologist.

“The United Nations is actually referring to the domestic violence rates right now as the ‘shadow pandemic,’” said Jennifer Kurtz, clinical director and forensic psychologist for R# Continuum.

With October being Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Kurtz conducted a webinar on Domestic Violence And Stalking As Risk Factors For Workplace Violence, explaining how domestic violence can carry over into the workplace, the warning signs, and what employers can do to protect their workplaces.

The Stats

Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other organizations have reported the increased rates of mental health-related issues during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, the rates of depression during a particular week in June were 24.3 percent, compared to just 6.5 percent during the same week last year. Twice as many people had reportedly considered suicide in a recent 30-day period, and substance abuse increased by 13 percent.

Reports also show increases of 20 percent to 33 percent of reports on domestic violence and demands for emergency shelters in many countries, including the United States.

The workplace is not immune to the impact of domestic violence and stalking. Domestic violence causes the loss of about 8 million days of paid work per year, or $1.8 billion, through absenteeism, presenteeism and reduced productivity. Additionally, more than half of mass shootings – 57 percent – are associated with domestic violence.

In addition to the victim of the domestic abuse and/or stalking, other employees can be subject to violence. That’s especially true in the case of intimate partner violence, when the perpetrator is a current or former partner.

“Of homicides related to IPV, 20 percent involve a third-party victim. What’s that mean,” Kurtz said. “If homicides of IPV, which is 30 to 60 percent of all female homicides, 20 of the time a bystander is killed as well. That has significant implications for violence in the workplace.”

In certain situations, coworkers can actually become targets of the stalker. ‘Target dispersion’ refers to a focus on people associated with the victim.

“To what degree has the stalker involved other significant people in the victim’s life; threatening family and friends, approaching the workplace, threatening coworkers?” Kurtz said. “Has he started going to the victim’s gym? Are other people now in danger. As target dispersion increases so does the risk for violence.”

The perpetrator may also see friends and family members as obstacles. “It’s not uncommon to see the people getting violent toward a former partner to follow them to work, try to get to them at work and create a situation where they will go through anyone trying to protect [the person] to get to their victim,” Kurtz said.

The Signs

Certain risk factors may make someone more prone to domestic violence; such as a history of abuse or violence, problems with substance abuse, paranoia, or perceived slight or humiliation. Of even more concerning to employers should be actual warning signs that may indicate violence is imminent.

These may include:

  1. Planning an attack
  2. Identification as a commando wannabe’ or ‘pseudo-soldier’ mentality
  3. Fixation, or an extreme preoccupation usually of the target
  4. Novel Aggression, or new violent/aggressive behavior
  5. Energy Burst, or increased activity as time window closes
  6. Leakage, meaning communication to a 3rd party of an intention or threat
  7. Last Resort behavior, or a sense of urgency / ‘time imperative’
  8. Direct Threat made directly to the intended victim or victims

“These are all things that can be watched for in terms of workplace violence if it’s known that an employee has been involved in domestic violence or stalking,” Kurtz said. “If they are the perpetrator or the victim, that raises the risk for workplace violence … If you have any risk or employees concerned about being victims of domestic violence or stalking, that is definitely a workplace violence issue.”

What to Do

Educating employees is “essential to help prevent domestic violence and stalking as part of workplace violence,” Kurtz said. Dispelling common myths can help. Among them are:

  • It is only a problem for women. “That is absolutely untrue,” Kurtz said. “Twenty-five percent of men have experienced physical violence. One in eight have been stalked and fear physical danger.
  • It’s only physical violence. “That’s also not true,” Kurtz said. “Sexual violence as well as psychological aggression or abuse are also, stalking is an example. It’s designed to cause fear, designed to control the victim’s behavior.”
  • It must be tolerable or the victim would leave. “That’s just not true,” Kurtz said. “Some fear that the retribution will be worse. Some genuinely don’t want to lose the relationship. Some are financially dependent on the abuser and don’t know how they would live. Some just have such strong religious or cultural beliefs that prevents them from leaving because they don’t believe they have that option.”
  • The abuse might be under a lot of stress and just snapped, excusing behavior. “People don’t just snap,” Kurtz said. “It’s a common myth, it’s out there all over the place. People don’t just snap. You have to look sometimes, but there are always warning signs and domestic violence is no exception.”

Interventions to protect employees boils down to an effective workplace violence prevention program, which should include domestic violence and stalking among its components.

“Every good program in an organization should include a zero tolerance policy for violence, which would include bullying, harassment, intimidation and stalking, which would include domestic violence,” Kurtz said. “There should be anonymous and confidential channels to report behaviors.”

Threat management teams should be developed to help monitor potentially risky behaviors among employees. These teams should share information among one another, rather than holding it in silos. “If they don’t share, something can get missed,” Kurtz said.

She also recommends consultation from community experts, such as law enforcement, legal experts, security and behavioral threat consultants. These experts should be brought in to create a multidisciplinary risk management approach.

Emphasizing personal responsibility is also important, such as explaining to the potential victim that not maintaining contact with the stalker is important.

Restraining orders can be beneficial, but not necessarily to prevent attacks. Kurtz advises getting consultation before seeking these. “Forty percent of perpetrators violate them,” she said. “The real purpose is to build a legal case against the stalker. Once they violate it, you call the police and they get arrested and you build a case for incarceration. It’s not so much of a protection, but a tool for management of the case.”

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