How to Help: I Think My Coworker is Being Abused

By Amy Thomson

While domestic violence occurs mainly behind closed doors and out of sight of the public eye, the effects of the abuse slowly seep out and impact every aspect of the victim’s life. Many first link abuse to changes in social behaviors including, but not limited to, shifting dynamics in relationships that occur when the victim begins to disconnect, changes in personal grooming habits and dress, mood shifts, and pulling away from social events. However, the destructive effects of intimate partner violence inevitably also spill over into the workplace, causing additional stress and trauma to those being victimized by their partners.

In a 2005 survey conducted by the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence (CAEPV), nearly half of the 64% of respondents who stated their work habits were affected indicated that they regularly worried coworkers would learn about the abuse, with close to 60% reporting the abuse caused them to be distracted. Additionally, about 20% of those respondents also held concerns that their abuser would show up unexpectedly at the workplace or repeatedly contact them by phone. Other concerns included worry about job security directly related to the abuse, tardiness or excessive absences, harassment, and diminished ability to perform their jobs properly.

Despite the lengths victims go in an attempt to keep the abuse a secret, there are ways to spot when a coworker may be experiencing abuse. While many of the red flags are consistent with others that appear in personal relationships, there are some additional warning signs associated with domestic violence spillover at work. Some indicators that a co-worker is being abused are as follows:

  • Signs of chronic fatigue, tension, or stress-induced illnesses that cannot be explained,
  • Frequent visible injuries often minimized, avoided, or accompanied by a story that seems rehearsed,
  • Diminished quality of work and inability to concentrate; becomes easily distracted or distant,
  • Decisive changes in mood and behaviors that indicate they are isolating themselves from coworkers and avoiding company sponsored events; insists on eating lunch alone,
  • Onset of issues with tardiness, absenteeism, and unexplained early arrivals or departures,
  • Refusal to accept overtime or travel for business,
  • Inflexibility in scheduled work hours (i.e., working precisely from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. without exception regardless of business needs),
  • Dramatic increase in phone calls and personal visits that disrupt the coworker and those around them,
  • Displays discomfort or anxiety when talking to the opposite sex; inability to maintain eye contact,
  • Grooming and personal appearance may abruptly change (suddenly stops wearing makeup or jewelry, dresses in increasingly modest clothing to cover up or not stand out).

If you suspect a co-worker is at risk of being abused or harmed by their intimate partner, there are steps you can take to help them. Before approaching them, it is important to be educated not only on the signs but services that are available to them as well. Therefore, the first step you should take is to research resources and have information on hand that you can share with them should they disclose abuse and accept the help being offered. With this knowledge in hand, you can initiate a conversation with your co-worker.

Choose a place to speak to your co-worker in private

Out of respect and consideration for their privacy, speak to them away from other staff. Disclosing abuse is never easy and putting them in a situation where others may overhear will likely result in their denial of abuse and decrease the likelihood that they will come forward in the future.

Initiate a conversation with your coworker

Be sure to avoid engaging them in a confrontational line of questioning and make it unmistakable that you are genuinely concerned about their well-being. Examples of ways you can initiate a conversation:

“I’ve noticed that lately you’ve seemed down or distant, and I wanted to know if there is something I can do to help.”

“I heard you crying on my way past your desk this morning (after a phone call or personal visit, etc.), and I want to let you know that I’m here to listen if you need to talk about anything.”

“When we were talking earlier in the breakroom, I noticed a bruise on your wrist and the cut above your eye. I’m worried about your safety, and I would like to help if you need it.”

Keep your expectations in check

You may be hopeful that your coworker will readily disclose to you that they are experiencing domestic violence. However, they may decline to do so when you first approach them out of fear of retaliation from their abuser, worry that they will not be believed or supported, or they are not yet ready to leave. If this happens, respect their choice but remain available to them. Once they are aware that someone has noticed something is wrong, it may be the tipping point that enables them to disclose to you that he or she is being harmed.

Be compassionate and supportive if they ask for help

  • Express concern that you are worried about their well-being.
  • Tell them that you believe them and acknowledge their fears and concerns.
  • Let them know that they are not alone or to blame in any way for the abuse.
  • Offer them help and provide information for domestic violence agencies or benefits.
  • Offer to help them create a safety plan (even if they choose to stay).

Things to avoid

  • Do not pressure them to leave if they aren’t ready or minimize fears they have about leaving their abuser. Most domestic violence fatalities occur when or after the victim leaves. They are also at increased risk for other forms of retaliation. Their safety is most important, and they know their abuser better than anyone.
  • Do not engage in victim blaming or shaming (criticizing them for staying or going back, telling them what you would have done, or asking what they did to anger the abuser).
  • Do not convince them to seek couples counseling. Such sessions put the victim at risk of retaliation for anything they may reveal during therapy in front of their abuser. Domestic violence is not a couple’s issue or an anger management problem. It is a choice of the abuser to willfully hurt their partner.

If you are still unsure of how to help or would like to speak to an advocate for more suggestions on how to help, you can contact us the following ways. All calls and messages are confidential.

  • Call our survivor helpline at 855-287-1777
  • Direct messaging via Facebook

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