Warning: This article discusses domestic violence

As an employer, maintaining a safe work environment is imperative. Unfortunately, with the context of COVID 19 and associated increase in domestic violence, working from home cannot be assumed to be safe. Here is what you can do as an employer.

In Australia, we know that domestic violence is a huge problem that has been exacerbated by COVID-19 which has restricted movement, forced family members and partners to spend more time together in private spaces (especially when working from home or through job loss), and has made accessibility to domestic violence services even more limited.

The Australian Institute of Criminology’s survey of 15,000 women in July 2020 on the effects of COVID-19 on domestic violence found:

  • Over 65% of women who experienced physical or sexual violence from a current or previous partner they lived with experienced this violence for the first time or experienced an escalation in the frequency and severity of this violence during COVID,
  • Over 54% of women who experienced coercive control from a current or previous partner they lived with experienced this abuse for the first time or an escalation of that abuse from February this year.

As an employer, you may be wondering what this has to do with you. Aside from providing financial security for victims of domestic violence, having a physical workplace provides a social network of support and a neutral public place where staff can be safe. 

Your duty to provide a safe workplace does not stop when staff are working from home. And it means more than ensuring staff have a good internet connection.

The Link Between Work And Home

First, let’s look at some examples of what it means when an injury occurs ‘in the course of employment.’ According to a 2015 case, Pioneer Studios Pty Ltd v Hills, the court found that key elements of a worker’s course of employment is attendance at a workplace, or carrying out work functions during business hours. Working from home is certainly carrying out work functions during business hours! 

In this case, it was acknowledged that boundaries have shifted. It was actually found that the further one moves away from the normal boundaries of work, the closer the scrutiny of the circumstances involved becomes.  

In Workers Compensation Nominal Insurer v Hill [2020] a de facto partner, operating under the delusion that the victim was trying to ruin his career, murdered his intimate partner. The couple were running a business together and working from home. In this case, the links between the worker’s employment and harm suffered, and whether this was a substantial contributing factor, were examined. In this case, the Workers Compensation Commission found ‘the deceased had died as a result of injury arising out of and in the course of her employment’. 

This is because:

  • The assault arose out of the course of her employment as the perpetrator believed the victim was trying to steal his clients and ruin his career. 
  • It was found the assault occurred in the course of employment as, though it was unknown if the deceased was working at the time, she was known to work or at least be on call for work at that location (her bedroom) at that time (between 8 and 10am).

What Are Your Legal Obligations As An Employer?

Employees have the right:

  • to take family and domestic violence leave
  • to take personal/carers leave
  • to request flexible working arrangements if they are experiencing family/domestic violence or caring for someone experiencing family/domestic violence

Confidentiality

Employers have a legal responsibility to keep information about domestic violence confidential. This is part of keeping an employee experiencing violence safe. The only exception is when an employer must disclose this information to prevent someone from being harmed. 

There are multiple barriers to disclosing violence and, if an employer is not taking confidentiality seriously, this could prevent staff from asking that their workplace needs are met.

Flexible Working Arrangements 

Flexible working arrangements can mean different working hours, different work duties, or different work locations. It’s something to think about: flexible working arrangements have, in pre-COVID times, implied working from home, whereas now you might want to also consider offering the opposite to provide a safe space.  

What Practical Steps Can Employers Take?

So, we know that ensuring a safe work environment is still the employer’s duty even when staff are working from home. Understandably, this might seem hard. After all, you’ve probably never even been to the place you are trying to ensure is safe, and may have little to no knowledge of whether your employee feels safe at home. 

It’s also important not to be intrusive of a staff member’s privacy, and demand to know details about their home life that they may not be willing to share. Allowing flexibility, allowing some staff to work from the office, and disclosing this to staff becomes even more important. 

We recommend you check out Fair Work’s resources on how to manage family and domestic violence in the workplace. 

Employers should aim to have open and secure communication with staff, act in a non-judgemental manner, and ask the staff member what they can do to practically help. It is important employers let their staff know what their rights are, and how workplaces can help. You might want to let staff know about their rights by including this in your workplace policy and procedures, and sending around these updates to staff. 

If a staff member opens up to you about domestic violence, you may want to direct them to some professional resources, such as:

As an employer, you can also find more practical information on what you can do including courses from a range of organisations such as Fair Work Australia, DV Work Aware, Our Watch or White Ribbon Australia

The Takeaway

You may not have realised your workplace could have been one of the few safe spaces staff could go to on a regular basis, or that you were able to implement flexible policies at work to assist staff experiencing domestic violence.

There are multiple opportunities open to you, as an employer, to take into account the very real risk of domestic violence to better protect your staff. It’s important to utilise all the great resources available for workplaces to sensitively approach this topic.

Lastly, making sure your staff are aware of their rights, and your duty to keep their information confidential, can create a better workplace culture. If you need help updating your workplace policies and procedures, or understanding your rights, feel free to reach out to us to chat with an employment lawyer on 1800 730 617 or team@sprintlaw.com.au.

About Sprintlaw

Sprintlaw is a new type of law firm that operates completely online and on a fixed-fee basis. We’re on a mission to make quality legal services faster, simpler and more affordable for small business owners and entrepreneurs.

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