Westpac NZ CEO David McLean writes why family violence is a workplace issue all employers need to address. The bank is the first organisation to earn a DVFREE Tick - an accreditation that recognises the bank's comprehensive domestic violence programme. Helplines can be found at the bottom of this article.

New Zealand employers wouldn't allow their workers to be slapped, sworn at, or spat on in the workplace - the idea's unthinkable. But do employers know how many of those workers are getting that same treatment when they head home at night? It's an uncomfortable question.

Once upon a time, we at Westpac didn't think that domestic violence was our problem as an employer. But more recently we have come to realise that it should in fact be treated as a workplace issue, for two main reasons. As employers we should care about the overall health and safety of our people, and be conscious that what can happen at home can affect them at work. And, secondly, the workplace has an important role to play as a safe environment where those affected can reach out for help.

Unfortunately, research shows that New Zealand women have a relatively high probability of being physically or sexually abused by a partner or ex-partner in their lifetime. Equally worrying is the number of women who are affected by psychological abuse, such as their partner controlling their money, their movements, or what they can wear. Although it is an issue that doesn't only affect women, for a business like ours, which employs more than 2700 women, family violence is a real and serious issue for a number of our staff.

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It is a problem that can be hard to get to grips with, because it is one that lives in the shadows, and that people don't like to talk about. Even once detected, it can be very difficult to broach with the parties involved. We believe that businesses have a role to play in helping bring the issue into the light, and in supporting those affected.

Where we at Westpac started was by trying to create a safe and supportive environment for employees to raise issues around domestic violence. This meant a comprehensive overhaul of our workplace policies and practices, focused on increasing staff awareness of different types of violence - physical and psychological.

The workplace can be a safe place where people can get help, David McLean CEO of Westpac NZ writes. Photo / Brett Phibbs
The workplace can be a safe place where people can get help, David McLean CEO of Westpac NZ writes. Photo / Brett Phibbs

We collaborated with domestic violence support charity Shine to ensure our approach followed best practice and have now been formally recognised as New Zealand's first Domestic Violence Free (DVFREE) employer with the DVFREE Tick.

We think this issue is important for NZ society, and so we have made the tools we have developed freely available to other organisations and individuals. One of those tools is a short online learning module that teaches about domestic violence, how it can affect the workplace, and how to communicate with colleagues who may be experiencing or perpetrating domestic violence.

So, how does being domestic-violence free work in practical terms?

First, all of our 4500 employees are encouraged to complete the online learning module so they are better equipped to spot signs of domestic violence. This is an issue that often doesn't manifest itself visibly. The red flags to look for are not just the obvious things like bruises, they can be things like a partner who persistently calls their partner at work, or who monitors or controls their movements. It may be the observation that a staff member appears anxious or scared when talking about their partner.

We also invested in a group of trained first responders within the business who can offer practical help to staff experiencing domestic violence.

That could just mean information about options such as special domestic violence leave, or putting someone in contact with external agencies who have expertise in dealing with domestic violence. In some cases it could also include creating a workplace safety plan, calling on our security team, or looking at a wide range of options to help that person be safe and feel safe. There are also app-based technologies to help staff members stay in touch. Our people also have access to domestic violence leave.

As well as helping our employees understand how they can help each other, one of the main things is that we want everyone in Westpac to know that they will be taken seriously and supported if they are in an abusive relationship and need help.

Other employers, like the University of Auckland, Countdown and The Warehouse, are also taking excellent steps to protect their people from domestic violence and I'd like to encourage more businesses do the same.

To those employers who want to take action, I encourage you to do so. If you don't think it's an issue affecting your staff, you might be surprised. Sadly, since we launched our programme we have seen a marked increase in our staff asking for help. I believe that it's important that as a business community we engage in these challenges. Imagine if leaders across all companies in New Zealand took steps to create an environment that supported a significant reduction in domestic violence. As a business community, that is something we could be proud of.

Westpac's materials for helping businesses make their workplaces DV free can be accessed through the Shine website.
If you're in danger NOW:
• Phone the police on 111 or ask neighbours or friends to ring for you
• Run outside and head for where there are other people
• Scream for help so your neighbours can hear you
• Take the children with you
• Don't stop to get anything else
• If you are being abused, remember it's not your fault. Violence is never okay

Where to go for help or more information:
• Women's Refuge: Free national crisis line operates 24/7 - 0800 REFUGE or 0800 733 843 www.womensrefuge.org.nz
• Shine, free national helpline 9am- 11pm every day - 0508 744 633 www.2shine.org.nz
• It's Not Ok: Information line 0800 456 450 www.areyouok.org.nz
• Shakti: Providing specialist cultural services for African, Asian and Middle Eastern women and their children. Crisis line 24/7 0800 742 584
• Ministry of Justice: www.justice.govt.nz/family-justice/domestic-violence
• National Network of Stopping Violence: www.nnsvs.org.nz
• White Ribbon: Aiming to eliminate men's violence towards women www.whiteribbon.org.nz