On 14 January 2021, Business Minister Paul Scully called all UK employers to do more to help their colleagues who may be the victims of domestic abuse. Incidence of domestic abuse spiked in 2020 to 2.4 million. The fact is that, during the pandemic, where many employees have become homeworkers, it has been more difficult for victims to get away from perpetrators of domestic abuse.
There is nothing new about an employer’s duty of care toward its employees, but the call to action with regards to looking out for signs of domestic abuse has become necessary; it is not, perhaps, immediately apparent to most employers that this is part of the statutory duty of care. In this article, Partner Emma Bartlett looks at how the duty on employers to provide a safe workplace under the Health and Safety at Work Act extends to an employee’s home.
In addition to the implied duty to take reasonable care of the health and safety of employees, employers are fixed with a statutory duty under the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 (HSWA) to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of its employees. This duty extends to homeworkers. Employers must also conduct ‘suitable and sufficient’ risk assessments, including for homeworkers, to identify any hazards and the associated degree of risk (regulation 3, Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999). For homeworkers, identifying hazards will normally be straightforward for the employer; possibly ensuring a basic first aid kit is available at home and that all technical equipment is well maintained are what first spring to mind, and providing employees with information on how to set up their desks properly.
The employer would not normally enter a homeworker’s home to conduct a risk assessment, so how does the employer comply with its statutory health and safety duty for homeworkers? Compliance with health and safety legislation should be proactive, rather than reactive. It is more than ensuring that employees have the right equipment and technology available to them at home. It includes supporting their physical and mental health as well, and domestic abuse at home is part and parcel of this.
In the last five years, employers have become more aware that supporting their employees’ mental health and wellbeing is important. Role models have been key in breaking the taboo around mental health, for example, Prince Harry’s Heads Together Campaign and professional services campaigns such as those of the Minds@Work Movement, where high-performing professionals spoke about their professional breakdowns and what support, particularly from the employer, helped them. Many employers have seen step changes in how mental health is viewed and increasing numbers of employees are feeling supported and signposted to help by their employer, which builds employee engagement and, hopefully, retention. Most employers understand that keeping in regular contact with their new, often vast number of, homeworkers is important during the pandemic to ensure they are coping or, if not, providing some support.
Specifically, in relation to domestic abuse, the Acas (The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) guidance on how employers can comply with their statutory health and safety obligations is helpful. Employers are encouraged to look out for signs of domestic abuse and respond appropriately to support victims. In order to comply with the employers’ obligation to keep a record of incidents at work, the employer should also, confidentially, record reports of domestic abuse from employees working at home, and any actions taken. The Government has also issued employer guidance, recommending that employers find a way to communicate safely (e.g., via private text or email) with employees who report domestic abuse, perhaps agreeing a code word or hand signal that can be used on work calls to alert colleagues, arrange alternative places to work, be flexible around working hours and time off to attend support appointments, and to help them get the appropriate help.
In order to raise awareness of the employer’s acknowledgement that the support of domestic abuse victims is part of its duty of care, employers are encouraged to consult with employees, trade unions or employee representatives over a Domestic Abuse Policy and then implement one. In the same way that colleagues have volunteered to become mental health first aiders, employers may want to consider training colleagues/HR as part of the policy. The policy can inform staff how to access a safe, confidential reporting mechanism so that the employee knows their concern will be treated seriously and sensitively. Rather than making assumptions as to the type of support the employee might need, the employer would need to either be able to signpost the employee to people who can discuss help with them, whether that is an external charity or counsellor via the employer’s private medical insurer.
It is not that employers and managers are to become counsellors. It is recognising, as part of the statutory duty of care, that an employee’s health, safety or wellbeing may be compromised and taking reasonable steps to support them.
If you have any questions arising from this alert, or for specific legal advice on particular circumstances, please contact our Partner Emma Bartlett, who specialises in employment and partnership issues for multinational employers, senior executives, partnerships and partners.