You probably don’t want to read about this — but should

Nobody wants to talk about it yet 50 per cent of those who experience it are likely to lose their jobs. In Alberta one in five employees reported its impact on their workplace. That impact is said to cost employers $77.9 million per year. In Australia it’s estimated that it represents 8 per cent of the disease burden for women ages 18-44 and is greater than other recognized risk factors for poor health. 56 per cent of those who experience it are likely to come in late for work at least five days a month.

The two most high-profile cases of it in Canada both took place in hospitals.

Have you guessed yet?

It’s domestic violence.

Jan Reimer, Provincial Coordinator of the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters (ACWS), spoke about what she calls a “hidden issue” at the Canadian Health Professional Secretariat meeting in Ottawa last Friday.

The Health Science Association of Alberta and the ACWS are undertaking a campaign to raise awareness in that province and encourage workers to take action by helping their colleagues who may be showing signs that they are living with domestic abuse. Working with the union, the ACWS has also developed a tool kit for employers.

The 2005 murder of Windsor nurse Lori Dupont by her ex-partner led to Ontario’s Bill 168 which requires employers to devise workplace violence and harassment policies and develop programs to reduce risk. The Inquest that followed noted there were 84 visible warning signs and chances to intervene.

In the same year Alberta experienced the slaying of Liana White, a unit clerk at Edmonton’s Royal Alexandra Hospital. White’s husband was convicted of second-degree murder. The 29-year-old White was pregnant at the time.

Reimer, a former Edmonton Mayor, stressed that collective agreements need to be rewritten to take into consideration the impact of workplace violence on workers. That could include more flexible work arrangements as well as access to advocates and counsellors.

She noted the case of a fast food worker who was beaten about the face and told to go home without pay until her face looked presentable to the restaurant’s customers. The burden meant the worker was unable to pay her rent, further compounding the impact of violence.

While Reimer praised Ontario for introducing legislation to deal with domestic abuse in the workplace, she viewed Bill 168 as lacking “teeth.”

Reimer says that she has been fortunate to receive funding for the project from the Corporate community. In a twist that underlines the reluctance of Canadians to talk about the issue, she says many of those offering money didn’t want to see presentations on the issue in their own workplaces.

“Eventually they will have an incident, and then they will get interested,” she said.

The other difficulty is that Reimer says there is an “optimistic bias” around the issue. Many fail to see what’s before them and assume that the issue of domestic violence happens somewhere else to someone else.

Despite its documented impact on the workplace – 74 per cent of domestic abuse victims are harassed at work – 85 per cent still disagree that it is an issue in their workplace.

“We cannot change what we will not see,” says Reimer.

Part of the difficulty in getting governments to respond is the lack of pan-Canadian data on the issue. NUPGE is presently working with the Canadian Labour Congress on a national survey that they hope will fill in some of these gaps. As of the end of February more than 3,800 surveys had been completed.

NUPGE’s Brenda Hildahl says it’s important that women be able to fill out these surveys in private and have time to think about the question. She acknowledges that the surveys may have a “triggering effect” in bringing back emotions associated with the abuse.

The results of the CLC survey are expected to be released December 6 on the Anniversary of the Montreal Polytechnique massacre.

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