Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) is a widespread public health problem in the United States and worldwide. IPV includes instances of physical violence, sexual violence and stalking by an intimate partner. But IPV is not limited to the home – it often follows victims into the workplace. Victims of IPV not only suffer from severe physical and mental health consequences, but also experience poorer work functioning and higher health care costs. Understanding and preventing IPV is crucial for workplace safety and creating a strong corporate culture, and it should be a top concern for every employer.
Twenty-four people per minute are victims of IPV in the United States – more than 12 million women and men per year. In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control released the results of the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS), which interviewed 16,507 adults (9,086 women and 7,421 men) to evaluate the incidence of IPV. The results were staggering: 35.6 percent of women and 28.5 percent of men in the United States have experienced IPV in their lifetime.
Perhaps even more staggering is that IPV is not only confined to the home. A study by the United States Department of Justice that examined IPV across 2,400 employed men and women in three companies across 39 states found that over 18 percent of currently-victimized employees reported experiencing some form of IPV carryover onto work premises. Estimates suggest that up to 75 percent of perpetrators harass their intimate partners at work, with 21 percent of offenders reporting that they contacted victims at the workplace in violation of a no contact order. Perpetrators can also interfere with employees’ work by such acts as refusing to watch children or attempting to cause harm prior to work.
IPV can cause serious physical and mental health consequences. One meta-analysis of several studies found that among female victims of IPV, 47.6 percent experienced depression, and 63.8 percent reported post-traumatic stress disorder. According to the NISVS study, men and women who experience IPV in their lifetime are more likely to have both mental health problems and physical health issues, including frequent headaches and chronic pain. In particular, women who had experienced IPV were more likely to have asthma, irritable bowel syndrome and diabetes than women who did not experience these forms of violence. More, compared to non-victims, victims of IPV are more likely to report lower productivity, higher absentee rates and more frequent tardiness. Worse, victims of IPV often see higher job turnover rates and job losses.
The combination of mental and physical health problems as well as loss of productivity results in high public health costs. The World Health Organization (WHO) found that IPV costs the U.S. economy $12.6 billion annually. And just as IPV can continue for years, the health care costs can be high over time and last long after IPV has ended. One study conducted a retrospective analysis to examine 1,167 women not exposed to IPV and 859 exposed women to determine the long-term effects of health care costs even after exposure had ended. Compared to women with no IPV history, total health care costs were significantly higher during IPV exposure, and these costs were sustained for three years following the end of exposure.
A very serious consequence for employers is that IPV can send a “ripple effect” through a corporate culture. Witnessing a co-worker being hurt or harassed can result in vicarious stress; studies indicate that seeing a co-worker bullied results in anxiety. Further, depression and lack of engagement at work can be contagious. Another co-worker not performing at his or her best because of IPV may reduce team morale. Research suggests that people may “catch” depressive thinking from others. For example, college roommates of depressed individuals may be more likely to demonstrate negative thinking and depressed mood. A problem for one employee can quickly become a problem for many employees, increasing turnover rates and costs for companies.
So what can be done? To be sure, existing treatments for perpetrators of IPV do not demonstrate strong evidence of success, and we know little of the efficacy of existing programs for battered spouses in reducing violence. However, there is initial research suggesting that the mental health consequences of IPV can be improved among victims. Therefore there is considerable room for businesses to show leadership in this area by not only directing victims to the best resources, but also developing and evaluating workplace programs to prevent IPV and aid its victims.
In order to accomplish this goal, businesses need to have a clear, systematic and serious way of managing IPV among employees. Perhaps as important as the procedures and structures is the executive “buy in”—the sense that IPV is an important issue for the company and will be dealt with seriously.
Unfortunately, some studies suggest that as many as 70 percent of companies have no official policy on managing IPV. Further, only 4 percent of companies have any type of training for employees to recognize or aid in IPV. Worse, while many corporate executives take IPV seriously, only 12 percent feel that businesses should have a role in managing the problem.
The good news is that much work has already been done to foster the type of corporate culture that can help manage the effects of IPV. Corporations are recognizing the importance shared values when it comes to physical and mental health in attracting top candidates and maintaining a productive workforce. Further, evidence suggests that a majority of senior corporate executives recognize how important IPV is.
More, results from the United States Department of Justice study found that victims who disclosed IPV—in comparison to those who did not—reported feeling more hopeful about their futures, safer, more supported and better able to concentrate. This study also found that when victims felt strong support from their employers, there were positive outcomes, including job satisfaction, organizational commitment and intention to turnover.
To facilitate environments in which employees will disclose IPV, employees, employers and human resources officials need to be educated on the signs and consequences of IPV, as well as corporate procedures to handle it effectively. Further, clear and firm policies need to be in place to investigate IPV, especially any form of violence or harassment that occurs at the workplace. This includes directives on whom an employee should speak with if managing IPV, as well as strict investigative and legal policies to protect employees. Further, human resources and employee assistance workers should be trained to detect and provide the proper referrals for care for victims of IPV.
Intimate Partner Violence is a serious but preventable problem that can impact employee well-being and work productivity. Workplaces are unique in that they not only represent “safe havens” from violence and harassment, they also set the tone denouncing IPV in our society. It is time for businesses to take a leadership role in helping address and prevent this serious public health issue.
Dr. Mike Friedman is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Follow Dr. Friedman on Twitter @DrMikeFriedman and EHE @EHEintl.