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Finally, companies are talking about domestic violence

The home has long been seen as a personal space that firms don’t impinge upon. But work-from-home has made domestic abuse a professional issue, and corporates like HUL are offering help

Between March and September 2020, the National Commission of Women received 13,410 complaints of crimes against women, of which 4,350 were of domestic violence.
Between March and September 2020, the National Commission of Women received 13,410 complaints of crimes against women, of which 4,350 were of domestic violence. (iStock)

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In a quiet corner of her home, she sits at a desk and writes her gratitude journal every night. It is one of the many changes she has cultivated these past months to help her navigate the crisis and focus on what is good and wholesome. It is also something her team at work has been advised to practice, to instil appreciation to remain optimistic. “I now see the silver linings and it has made all the difference. Not to mention that it has given me the perspective to stay bold and positive,” she says.

If over the past few years talking about mental health has gained a measure of acceptance and shed some of the attached stigma, the last year has accelerated that acknowledgement and sealed the deal. It’s no longer just discussed in corporate forums as a nice-to-do but as an organizational imperative. If mental health programmes in the past were regarded as interventions meant only for a certain population, covid-19 brought them into prominence, recognized the spectrum of issues and, most importantly, normalized them at the workplace.

Many organizations realized their employees required help and stepped up—they increased budgetary allocation and introduced a host of wellness programmes. Some responded with employee assistance programmes, others provided access to webinars on mental health, while some focused on training first-line managers and leaders to recognize early signs of anxiety and stress among team members. Guidelines were issued to employees to manage work from home. Similar recommendations were shared with supervisors for effective team working and support and we saw the rise of the daily check-in, the virtual coffee hour, even the virtual “potluck”.

All of these are indisputable, much-needed programmes, stemming from deliberate and progressive intent, and augment existing initiatives most progressive organizations have in place to address workplace harassment issues. The question is: Are organizations taking a comprehensive view of mental health and employee well-being?

Beyond gender empowerment

When one looks at the employee wellbeing holistically, what about another, mostly unspoken and definitely ignored, societal malaise: Domestic abuse? By many accounts, domestic abuse has spiraled in the past months, in the context of work from home, which firms have had to embrace and will continue to in some form or the other in the hybrid workplace.

For long the elephant in the room, the issue has been skirted in discussions on gender empowerment, levelling playing fields and shattering glass ceilings. I am aware that some organizations have held sessions designed by non-governmental agencies to create both awareness and education around it. Some have provided sporadic counselling support for employees. But all such interventions have been few and far between.

Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL) recently announced a gender-neutral policy to support victims of domestic abuse and violence, bringing the issue formally into the employee wellbeing realm. It is definitely pioneering in its intent to highlight the need for companies to start focusing on the issue.

It’s especially pertinent in a scenario where employees are expected to spend two-thirds of their life at home and only a third at the workplace, virtual or physical.

Domestic abuse, the occurrence of not just physical but also emotional abuse from an intimate partner or extended family, impacts the employee’s self-esteem, health, productivity and morale. But within the professional world, the home has been looked at as a personal space that the organization does not impinge upon. Any “mediation” or intervention here has been regarded as an invasion of privacy.

Even when acknowledged as existing in the white collar worker realm, domestic abuse has been spoken of in hushed whispers and invoked at best empathy or solicitous tut-tuts of the victim’s plight. The pandemic and work-from-home scenario, however, exacerbated the violence, increased reportage and incidents brought it to the attention of the layperson.

Between March and September 2020, the National Commission of Women received 13,410 complaints of crimes against women, of which 4,350 were of domestic violence.

Not just in India but across the world, women were forced to stay at home with their abusers, with no respite and nowhere to go. This even led to the United Nations referring to the increase in domestic violence as a “shadow pandemic”.

It is in this context that HUL’s policy to support survivors of domestic abuse is pathbreaking. With this policy, HUL has focused on the hitherto less acknowledged space—the employee’s well-being at home and more power to them for that. By pledging to create channels where employees can safely access assistance either through helplines, support groups or safe accommodation, they have demonstrated solidarity and empathy and facilitated a culture of “speak up”. By granting relief (emotional, financial and medical) to employees who suffered physical or emotional abuse at home, they have taken a step to recognize and champion well-being across the blurred boundaries of work and home—a blurring that is going to remain mainstream and ubiquitous for some time. They have shared this best practice when they recently made the Global Domestic Violence and Abuse Policy available for any organization to use and implement.

In doing so, they have shown the way to fellow organizations to take a hard look at the way in which they support employees who may be victims of domestic abuse.

The culture of caring has never been stronger in India Inc. There are some exceptions of companies that are doing business as usual, of course, but overall, the case for employee wellbeing has never been clearer.

As we navigate the current crisis, it is crucial that as leaders and company policy makers, we recognize that we need to take conscious steps that extend the concept of “employee wellness” beyond the workplace and support our employees by creating awareness of the problem, standing in solidarity with them and providing support to victims and survivors.

Hema Ravichandar is a strategic HR consultant. She serves as an independent director and advisory board member for several organizations.

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