Domestic violence spills into workplace

First-ever Canadian study on workplace impact ‘wake-up call’
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/10/2015

Domestic violence may start at home — but it doesn’t necessarily stay there. It often spills over into many different facets of a victim’s life, including the workplace. 

Many Canadian workers with domestic violence experiences say their work life was negatively impacted by it, according to a study by Western University in London, Ont., and the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC). 

More than one-half (53.5 per cent) of study respondents who reported a domestic violence experience said at least one type of abusive act occurred at or near their workplace, according to the study of 8,429 people, most of whom were unionized employees. 

Thirty-eight per cent said it impacted their ability to get to work and 8.5 per cent said they have lost a job because of domestic violence. 

“Even if it wasn’t happening at work, it was on their minds, it was distracting them, they were being prevented from getting to work,” said Vicky Smallman, national director of women’s and human rights at the Canadian Labour Congress in Ottawa. “Also, there was a sense from many of the respondents that it also impacted co-workers.”


Canadian employers lose $77.9 million every year because of direct and indirect consequences of domestic violence, according to a 2012 Department of Justice study. But how many workers are impacted?

About one-third (33.6 per cent) of respondents said they experienced domestic violence at some point in their lives, according to the UWO and CLC study. Aboriginal respondents, persons with disabilities and LGBT individuals were more likely to have experienced domestic violence. 

Seeing the prevalence of domestic violence can be startling for employers, said Barbara MacQuarrie, one of the study’s authors and community director of the Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women & Children at Western University. 

“In our minds, we’ve assumed there’s a barrier between home and work. And we really haven’t understood the extent to which those harassing and violent behaviours actually follow people into the workplace,” she said. 

And the survey results — while disturbing — are a call to action, said Smallman. 

“For us, it was a little bit of a wake-up call. We found some of the results really disturbing” she said. “(And) it’s not just victims that are in the workplace — it’s also perpetrators… sometimes both the victim and the perpetrator are in the workplace.”

Workplace instances of domestic violence varied widely, from harassing behaviours such as frequent phone calls, emails or text messages to high-risk behaviours, such as stalking, to the abuser physically coming to the work premises, found the study. 

“Most of us have seen this behaviour, but our tendency has been to put the responsibility for the behaviour back onto the victim and say, ‘That’s disruptive to the workplace,’” said MacQuarrie.

The challenging thing about work and domestic violence is that in order to escape a bad situation, it’s important that you have economic security, said Smallman. “But your abuser can always find you when you’re at the workplace, even if you move into the shelter.”

Employer’s role

Just 10.6 per cent of the respondents thought employers are aware when domestic violence is affecting an employee, found the survey. 

“It’s an area where we can really improve,” said MacQuarrie. “But to balance that out a little bit, you see that when people did tell somebody in their workplace, for the most part, they thought something positive happened.” 

Domestic violence is still stigmatized and women often don’t report it to their employer, said Julie White, London, Ont.-based director of Unifor’s women’s department, who was on the study’s steering committee.

“If there are no advocates in the workplace where women can report or seek out workplace or community supports, they’re generally not talking about the issue.”

When it comes to reporting, people are far more likely to disclose their situation to a co-worker than to a manager, supervisor or union rep, found the study.

“That really points to the need for education across the workplace — all levels. And it’s not hard to see why people would be more comfortable talking with a co-worker first. If that happened in Ontario, it depends on the degree of risk and level of threat, but it could well be that that co-worker has a responsibility to tell their supervisor. I don’t think most co-workers understand that, and even a lot of supervisors don’t understand that,” said MacQuarrie.

“We really need to be educating everybody about how to recognize warning signs, how to have difficult conversations... We’ve been socialized to turn the other way, to say, ‘It’s none of my business.’ And I think we have to break through that.”

Another thing that’s important to consider is that the survey respondents were largely people who had good, stable jobs — with most unionized, most in full-time employment, said Smallman. 

“It underscores the fact that domestic violence really can happen to anybody, but it also leads me to wonder what the impacts are, whether they’re felt more deeply or differently, by people who are in precarious work. Are they less likely to go to their employer for help? Are they more frequently laid off or fired because of absenteeism or distraction or poor work performance?”

Next steps 

Moving forward, the Canadian Labour Congress has sent a copy of the research to federal labour minister Kellie Leitch and requested there be a roundtable on the issue that includes federal, provincial and territorial governments, employers, unions and domestic violence experts.

“I think the labour movement’s really going to take a lead on this… we’re going to redouble our efforts to negotiate (Unifor’s) Women’s Advocate Program (and) things like paid leave for domestic violence into collective agreements,” said White. 

The Canadian Labour Congress is also looking specifically at provisions such as paid domestic violence leave, said Smallman, adding that one already exists in a collective agreement.

“There’s one collective agreement that I’m aware of in Canada, and that’s the Yukon Teachers’ Association — they get five days of domestic violence leave. But this was the approach they took in Australia and now significant numbers of workers are covered by these clauses,” she said. 

CLC also wants governments to look at occupational health and safety legislation, employment standards and human rights legislation, and it is reaching out to ministers of labour at the federal and provincial levels, said Smallman.  

“Right now, our main goal is to promote greater awareness. The survey really is a tool and it’s a start of a much larger conversation that needs to happen,” she said.

MacQuarrie agreed. 

“We really need to come together and collaborate on this problem. Even big powerful governments, even large, well-resourced employers, even unions that are wanting to advocate for their members, and certainly not domestic violence advocates, we can’t on our own resolve this situation,” she said. 

“None of us has all the pieces that are needed to make our workplaces safe and productive, so we really need to learn how to work together on this.”

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