The difference a truly supportive employer can make

Suzanne Jacob, SafeLives Chief Executive, explores what she has needed from her employer during one of the most difficult periods of her life

In the last six months my dad has died and my mum has had a stroke. I don’t write about it here for sympathy or to expose family grief, but instead to explore what I’ve needed from my employer during what is still one of the most difficult periods of my life to date. It might seem odd for a charity CEO to talk about their ‘employer’. After all, aren’t I the boss? In reality my employer manifests in multiple ways, particularly in our Chair of Trustees, and – because we’re a small, mission driven organisation – in my relationship with the staff team. So this is my attempt to address some of my lessons learned to employers and team members in other organisations – whether voluntary, public or commercial sector.

Over the last ten months I have needed a great deal of flexibility from my employer. I have had to arrive at meetings late and leave early. I have disappeared ‘home’ 200 miles away at short notice. I have been teary in the office and had to decide how much to say about why, and I’ve worked weird times of the day and week instead of more traditional hours. I’ve checked my phone a great deal and I’m sure that multiple times I’ve looked and sounded distracted and not at my best.

Not all of these changes to my professional life would have been acceptable if I worked somewhere else. I know that. Layer that up, then, with the possibility that members of your workforce or team might need comparable levels of flexibility for less easily explicable reasons than prostate cancer and stroke.

What if, instead of common, normalised physical health issues, my behaviour in the workplace was due to the fact that I was trying to sustain myself in safety while someone systematically tried to attack it? If I wore trousers to cover cigarette burns on my legs, or I needed time off to go to court, wearing what I wanted to, what I really wanted to, for the first time in several years?

I warmly welcome the steps major UK employers such as EY and Vodafone are taking to provide their staff with compassionate leave, to deal with domestic abuse they might be experiencing or have experienced. What’s vital, as they do so and others consider it, is to think about how you create a culture in which it’s ok to ask. A couple of years ago, I spoke to a police officer who had initiated significant change in her force about the response to officers who had experienced abuse. She noticed that although they had a reasonable looking policy, there was no record of anyone having accessed it. Ever. What she realised, as she spoke to her colleagues, was that officers and staff were afraid of a set of perceptions that might be levied at them if they disclosed their situation. Melani, one of our own team and herself an ex-police officer, talks about that in more detail here.

Police officers aren’t alone in this. In another instance, I was told that the only trigger for a woman finally telling her employer what was happening outside work was because she was being put on formal performance management measures for poor attendance and inattention. Fearing the loss of her job – her only way to retain an income and the prospect of changing her situation – she took a giant leap of faith and spoke out. She disclosed to someone she barely knew, because she saw in her colleague’s diary an upcoming meeting with SafeLives. She thought it suggested someone might listen, and help.

Companies we speak to are understandably nervous about their role. Many organisations still don’t have a culture in which talking about cancer, mental health problems, or divorce would be a normal part of conversation, so how can they possibly facilitate a process of opening up about abuse? I understand that. And yet, the prize is worth it. Being able to say with authenticity that yours is an organisation where people are supported – appropriately, meaningfully supported – makes you somewhere people will want to be. And want to be their best.

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Training for employers

Employers are well placed to spot the signs in colleagues: anxiety, decreased motivation, seeming distracted, being late, being on the phone to a partner or family member very often – and yet so often no one knows what to say or do. This must change.

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