Workplace Responses to Domestic and Family Violence in Regional Areas
Dr Kate Farhall
The relationship between domestic and family violence (DFV) and work is complex. Research over the past twenty years has illuminated the ways in which paid work can complicate the experience of violence, as well as ameliorate it.
In Australia, approximately two-thirds of women experiencing violence by a current partner are in paid employment. Victims of violence experience significant impacts on their lifetime job stability and income. Given that the overwhelming majority of victims are women, DFV is therefore a contributing factor in the ongoing gender pay gap.
Moreover, DFV involves tactics of coercive control. This often involves the perpetrator limiting the victim’s autonomy and mobility; frequently, this manifests in obstructing the victim’s access to employment. It may also involve threats to interfere at work, resulting in absenteeism.
At times, abuse can enter the workplace, via surveillance, harassing calls and emails, or the actual occurrence of violence at work. Aside from the safety implications, this can lead to an inability to concentrate, be productive, or essentially perform effectively in a professional role.
Perpetrators and co-workers also experience disruptions. Perpetrators may be distracted, absent or use company resources to commit abuse; co-workers may have to take on extra work or even be exposed to abuse. All this impacts on workplace culture.
Yet at the same time, studies show maintaining work can be crucial for victims (and beneficial for employers). The financial benefits that come with paid employment can be invaluable: countless reports identify economic self-sufficiency as a key difference between staying in an abusive relationship and being able to leave. Work can also provide psychological benefits. It can be a ‘safe place’ to escape abuse and feel productive; it can provide a sense of normality, as well as deliver social support and a sense of community. It can also be a means of avenues for support, as well as simply a distraction.
All this points to the complexity of the relationship between DFV and work, underscoring competing priorities around ongoing access to work for those experiencing violence, at the same time that attending and being productive at work may be challenging.
Within this context, Australia has seen public debate about whether workplaces have a responsibility to address domestic violence. However, within this debate, and associated research, little attention has been paid to the needs and experiences of victims, perpetrators and workplaces outside of big cities.
My research explores rural and regional experiences at the intersection of DFV and work. I have found that, while there are notable similarities between rural and urban experiences, the specifics of space and place need to be taken into account when designing workplace responses to DFV in a non-metropolitan context.
Most obviously, distance is an important factor in rural areas. This can mean help is further away and more time is required to attend appointments, impacting on work attendance. The distances involved also often result in fewer options for employer flexibility. For example, a supermarket chain cannot simply reassign a victim to another branch a short drive away as part of a DFV safety plan. In the country, that next chain location might easily be an hour away.
The social norms and practicalities of any given location impact on the local experience of violence — and shape any attempt to combat it. In non-metropolitan areas, these place-based specifics manifest in various ways, including a tendency towards more pronounced gender differences in work patterns and household roles, alongside higher rates of violence. It can also manifest in everyday differences, such as the increased likelihood that a victim and perpetrator will work in the same workplace.
In my research, one of my interviewees spoke of a couple in the same workplace who both took out family violence intervention orders against each other. This was exacerbated by the small physical footprint of the workplace and meant an extraordinary effort was required to honour the orders, while maintaining both parties’ right to work.
These kinds of complexities relating to space and place are more likely to arise in non-metropolitan contexts. Any workplace response to DFV must take into account the context in which it takes place in order to effectively support victims and address cycles of violence. Outside of big cities, workplaces, unions and other world-of-work actors should take care to ensure that urban approaches are not unquestioningly applied to rural and regional situations.
Non-metropolitan contexts entail higher levels of complexity when it comes to the intersection of work and DFV. Responses must take this complexity into account.
Dr Kate Farhall is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Centre for People, Organisation and Work at RMIT University: http://rmit.academia.edu/KateFarhall