How to spot signs of domestic abuse at work

Can you tell if your co-worker is struggling at home? What can you do?

How to spot signs of domestic abuse at work

If your colleague doesn’t tell you about their personal struggles, how do you know if they need help or support in any way? Can you tell if they’re suffering from domestic abuse? What are some signs you can look out for during your interactions with them at work? An experienced therapist said there’s no clear answer to those questions – but they’re important to ask anyway.

“Anybody can be a victim of domestic violence,” said Natalia Rachel, director at Soma Clinic in Singapore, and a practitioner who specialises in complex health and trauma recovery. “At our clinic there are many different profiles that come in and they’re often not what you would think, [example] it’s somebody that’s a bit weak or who doesn’t connect to their power – it’s just not true.”

Her team has seen everyone from ‘Type A’ career women who are at the top of their game at work, to men who are CEOs and executives in their organisations. Despite being high-fliers at work, they find themselves going home to abusive environments where they’re yelled at or even hit and frequently face harm.

“There really isn’t a clear ‘one profile’,” Rachel said in a webinar organised by United Women Singapore. “But the marker is when somebody has lost their sovereignty and their sense of agency and impulse to set [personal] boundaries. So that’s the common theme within a relational dynamic, [the victim feels] ‘I am disempowered. I’m not able to set a boundary. I’m not able to transform the dynamic and I’m not able to leave’.”

And in this era of remote work, where the boundaries between work and home have blurred, the issue of domestic violence has become even more dangerous because there is no ‘escape’ for the victim or the abuser. However, short of seeking help, it’s not easy to help silent survivors of violence.

Read more: How to deal with domestic violence at work

What you can do: Understand their experiences

While you can’t clearly point out a potential victim, there are signs that may suggest that something isn’t quite right. Oftentimes it manifests in drastic changes in the way someone works or behaves – whether it looks like they’re slacking off, acting out or being extreme superstars at work.

Whatever the scenario, they’re likely going to crash soon, but instead of victim blaming, Rachel believes leaders should try to be empathetic because you don’t always know what someone’s going through. “How can we really support someone if we don’t understand what’s happening to them or recognise what’s happening beneath the surface?” she said. “There’s a lot going on internally, psychologically, for someone who’s going through or has gone through abuse.”

Read more: Domestic violence: What’s HR’s role in protecting employees?

Shamed into silence

Firstly, survivors may feel ashamed of their experiences, which pushes them further into silence. They may have thoughts like: ‘How could I have let this happen to me? Did I do something to deserve it? I must be a terrible person or I’m just so weak.’ Those thoughts can breed self-hatred or worse – it can cause more violence.

“When we experience shame, we don’t speak up,” she said. How you can help is by “reaching in” and befriending someone who seems troubled. Showing that you’re trustworthy and able to offer support or even just a listening ear can help them to speak out, and eventually seek out professional help.

Read more: Toxic Taboos: Why the stigma around mental health?

Staying quiet due to fear of retaliation

Secondly, survivors might choose to keep things to themselves for fear of backlash. Rachel explained that the sense of fear “can have many layers to it”. In this case they may think that the abuse will get worse if they speak up. Unfortunately, since many people are being abused by someone close to them or someone they rely on, the victim may also be scared about losing their financial security or being abandoned or rejected in the relationship.

“It kind of seems a bit strange to care about losing a relationship in which you’re experiencing harm, but this is one of the markers of psychological abuse,” she said. “So, the victim is trapped, and they’re powerless. It feels like there’s no way out, so they’re literally petrified.

“There’s a feeling that I can’t survive without this person in my life, even though they’re harming me. That’s one of the paradoxes of trauma and it goes back to early life attachment wounds.”

Read more: How to fight loneliness in the workplace

Uncertain if the experiences are real

Thirdly, the abuse victim may feel a loss of reality. Their experiences may involve dealing with constant threats, gaslighting and projection of anger or negative emotions. “This repeated harm can really weaken and erode the spirit,” she said. “The person being abused can think, ‘Am I really being abused? Did I cause the abuse? Am I the abuser?’ So there’s this inability to know what is and isn’t real. This causes them to freeze and again, to shut down.”

A natural reaction to constant abuse and violence is going into survival mode. This can look very different from person to person. People typically ‘snap on’ a sort of external shell or an entirely different personality at work to cope with their struggles and get through life. “Our external shells are different for everyone,” Rachel said. “They’re unique and they depend on a lot of other things [such as]: What are our go-to adaptive survival responses? What else is going on in our lives now? What else has gone on in our lives before?”

She listed three distinct work personalities of individuals who have suffered or are suffering from domestic abuse: the burnout, ‘Jekyll and Hyde’, and the overachiever.

Personality #1: The burnt out worker

This individual is consistently exhausted at work. They can’t focus at work and they can’t get their work done. “This person is so depleted from being repeatedly abused,” she said. They may even start presenting physical conditions like chronic fatigue or always find themselves falling sick because “they’re really not managing”.

Read more: Feeling low? 6 warning signs you’re burning out

Personality #2: The rage machine

This co-worker may be easier to spot and suggest that ‘something’s up’. This person is totally fine one minute during a meeting, and then all of a sudden, they’re triggered by something at work and explode in anger or in tears. “It’s like night and day,” she said. They’re likely unable to process a situation, for instance, comments from another colleague or extra pressure to perform at work, after trying hard to suppress their experiences or emotions from home.

They go by many labels, including the employee with the anger management problem, the ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ character – or a title that Rachel condemns – the toxic employee. “These people are the ones that are commonly labelled toxic employee,” she said. “I really dislike that term. I think it’s being thrown around as a buzzword right now, but people are toxic because they’re not coping. Abuse might be one of the reasons that they’re not coping.”

Read more: How to manage your anger and frustration at work

Personality #3: The Type A overachiever

This may be the most difficult to spot as they’re “experts at hiding” their troubling experiences at home. These individuals are commonly seen as ‘Type A’ at work: they’re superstars who usually put on a smile at work. They’re always working overtime and overachieving at work, said Rachel, that you’re left wondering, “how do they do so many things in a day? It’s like they’ve got 80 hours in a day!”

The sad part of it all is they’re overcompensating and doing their best to cover up the build up of tension, frustration, and negative emotions underneath. This personality is the “most dangerous” because they’re putting their whole system, mental and physical, on overdrive and it can lead to dire health consequences later on.

“The really interesting thing is that for many of these people, these responses are completely unconscious,” she said. “They weren’t made the way that they are existing now. That can be confusing, and it can also create another layer of shame and shutting down. I think a lot of work in this [supporting victims] still needs to do around understanding this and educating at various layers [of society] with different levels of knowledge. Then the next bit is what do you do about it.” 

If you or someone you know needs help, please call the following hotlines:

  • National Anti-Violence Helpline – 1800 777 0000
  • PAVE – 6555 0390
  • TRANS SAFE Centre – 6449 9088
  • Care Corner Project StART – 6476 1482
  • In case of immediate threat, call the police at 999

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