21/10/2016 2:34 PM AEDT | Updated 24/10/2016 3:06 AM AEDT

Workplaces Can't Afford To Ignore The Cost Of Domestic Violence

This is not an issue to be trivialised.

Frank Gaglione
800,000 women in the Australian workforce are living or have lived in an abusive relationship.

Despite the number of women in Australia who experience violence at the hands of their intimate partners, domestic violence is still an issue that is highly stigmatised. This is evidenced by our national conversation, which persists in questioning the choices of the victim ("Why doesn't she leave?") rather than asking why the perpetrators are violent towards women, or questioning in what ways our culture and society enables such prolific violence to take place.

It is little wonder why these attitudes persist when you look at the media coverage of efforts to support victims of domestic violence to remain in the workplace.

On Friday, The Australian published a cartoon featuring a man reading about the availability of paid leave for people experiencing domestic violence. He turns to his partner and encourages her to hit him over the head with a wine bottle, ostensibly to enjoy the 'largesse' of domestic violence leave -- an entitlement that seeks to protect victims of domestic violence when they are at their most vulnerable.

The ignorance is disappointing, but the lack of empathy is staggering.

Approximately 1.4 million Australian women are living in an abusive relationship, or have done so in the past. Of these women, about 800,000 are in the paid workforce.

For those who oppose the idea of workplace policies for employees experiencing violence on the basis of the cost to business, let us be clear: businesses are already feeling the cost of domestic violence.

For employees who have experienced domestic violence, nearly half report the violence affected their capacity to get to work (including by physical injury or restraint, hiding car keys or failing to care for children). Their work performance is impacted, with employees feeling anxious, distracted and unwell, having to take time off and being late to work. By 2021-22, KPMG estimates that domestic violence will cost the Australian economy $9.9 billion per year, including $609 million in production-related costs (such as absenteeism or turnover).

When we implement workplace policies to support people experiencing violence, our hope is to lessen the impact -- primarily on the person experiencing violence, but also on the workplace and on the community.

Domestic violence isn't something workplaces can afford to ignore. Domestic violence actually carries into the workplace for one in five women experiencing domestic violence -- with abusive phone calls, threatening emails and perpetrators turning up to the workplace. These real and immediate threats to employee safety need to be something workplaces are aware of and prepared for.

Workplace policies are also critical because they support people experiencing violence to remain in paid employment. For a woman experiencing domestic violence, economic factors are the largest predictor of whether she stays, leaves or goes back to an abusive relationship. Ensuring those experiencing violence can remain in the workforce means they can maintain their economic independence and vital support networks out of the home.

Many organisations -- including Telstra, NAB, and KPMG -- have introduced workplace policies on domestic violence, with common provisions including safety planning (for example changes to contact details or a security escort to their car), access to the Employee Assistance Program which provides free counselling, flexible work arrangements and clauses providing paid leave for those experiencing violence. This leave is typically an additional entitlement to sick leave or annual leave, in recognition of the many additional issues and stressors those experiencing domestic violence have to deal with, such as filing police reports, moving into new accommodation and attending court.

For people who require domestic violence leave, the idea of disclosing their experience of violence is often deeply distressing and highly stressful. They fear judgement, ridicule, breach of privacy, retribution, damage to their career or not being believed. In many cases, their fears are justified.

Cartoons like the one featured in The Australian further isolate those experiencing violence and perpetuate the stigma surrounding the issue. They convey the message that it is okay to laugh at the experience of those suffering domestic violence and trivialise their requests for help.

As workplaces explore the best ways they can support their people experiencing violence, we need to debate ideas and share best practice in a way that doesn't downplay the serious criminal offences committed by perpetrators, or diminish the pain and suffering of those experiencing violence.

Given the widespread nature of domestic violence in Australia, we will only be able to create significant change if we bring the whole community together and work in partnership. All of us -- including workplaces and the media -- have a role to play in decreasing the prevalence and impact of domestic violence.