Domestic violence takes a toll in the workplace

A new study finds that victims are exhausted and miss work, co-workers are scared, and productivity plunges.

By Lori Leibovich
Published December 8, 2005 10:07PM (EST)

Today Business Week reports on new research that suggests domestic violence greatly affects workplace performance and safety. A University of Arkansas study found that people who have been abused by their partners miss work and are tardy more often than other employees. It also showed that 20 percent of threats and 72 percent of stalking incidents occur at work, "potentially putting other employees, and even customers, at risk."

The study is based on a survey sent by e-mail to 4,500 employees at all levels of Arkansas-based service firms; 1,500 employees replied. Astonishingly, "almost 40% of female and 22% of male respondents said they had been abused at some point in their lives. Slightly more than 10% of the women and 8% of the men said that they had been victims in the past 12 months." The high rate of abuse "really was a shocker," Carol Reeves, lead researcher for the study, told Business Week. Especially when you consider that in 1996 the National Violence Against Women Survey reported that a little more than 22 percent of women said they had been abused at some point in their lives and about 1.3 percent of women nationwide said they had been victims of intimate-partner violence in the previous 12 months. Plus, in Reeves' study, abuse was defined as physical harm -- "stalking, physical force, and sexual and psychological abuse" and didn't even include verbal and emotional abuse.

So, what the hell is going on in Arkansas?

Reeves says that even though the state usually ranks in the top 10 among states for rates of domestic violence, she doesn't think that necessarily explains her findings. "My gut reaction is that there was more disclosure of abuse in our results because we surveyed people at work via the Internet, which is fairly anonymous," Reeves said. "The earlier studies involved calling people at home. And if the abuse is occurring at home, how comfortable will people feel answering questions there?" Good point.

So how does this widespread abuse affect victims and their co-workers? Abused employees (both men and women) are more exhausted and have more difficulty concentrating at work than employees who aren't abused. And women who said they had been abused in the previous 12 months said they had been distracted, absent and/or tardy. (Interestingly, male victims didn't report similar problems with productivity.) And having an abused co-worker lowers productivity for the office as a whole, because when employees witness stalking behavior -- threatening phone calls and e-mails, following the victim to work -- they get scared and distracted, too.

Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

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