Aoife Sadlier, PJ Annand, Andy Guise and Angela Sweeney
November 12 2021
In March 2020, the UK ground to a halt, as the effects of the Covid pandemic began to be felt across many sectors of society, and enforced lockdowns became the ‘new normal’. The domestic abuse sector was no exception. Almost overnight, services were forced to shut their doors and bring their activities online. New strategies had to be developed to get clients to safety. Even more challenges arose from the digital divide and increasingly complex caseloads. Organisations struggled with an ever more volatile context, while some found creative ways of coping. All of this was achieved in the context of chronically limited funding and resources.
What happens to the gendered division of care when society locks down? How does this impact the workings of the domestic abuse sector, both for survivors and those supporting them? These are important questions too often swept under the carpet. While a new Domestic Abuse Bill was officially passed into law on 29 April 2021, insufficient attention has been paid to broader structural injustices, including the gendered division of care work and emotional labour, which continue to affect both domestic abuse survivors and service staff.
Intersectional inequalities and domestic abuse
As developed by the sociologist Arlie R. Hochschild, the concept of ‘emotional labour’ can be used to capture the need for people to hide their feelings and the extent of their distress ‘to keep the show on the road’, no matter how many other commitments they have. While the term does not only apply to women, women overwhelmingly bear its brunt, for complex reasons including the unequal and gendered distribution of labour. The concept should therefore be viewed in the context of intersecting inequalities that overlap and interact with it – for example, along lines of ‘race’ and ethnicity, class, and migration – and also within the context of a neoliberal work culture where in many cases, work makes people sick.
Women are responsible for 60% more unpaid labour than men. They are also, especially in times of crisis, more likely to be yoked with the burden of care, due to ‘the persistence of traditional gender roles and…the structure of women’s economic participation’. Unpaid caregiving roles limit women’s access to economic opportunities and independent living. Notably, women who are Black, Asian, or from other minoritised and marginalised ethnic groups, are twice as likely as white workers to be employed in lower-paid and insecure jobs. In the context of domestic abuse, this also makes it all the more difficult to escape an abuser, with caring responsibilities adding to the load.
In such – already intolerable – circumstances, the Covid pandemic exacerbated the situation. Many of those experiencing domestic abuse were unable to access refuge and support during the first UK lockdown in April/May 2020, due to being trapped under the watchful eye of a perpetrator with limited phone access, for example. Abuse intensified and once the lockdowns ended, there was an influx of survivors needing urgent assistance.
In this context, an interdisciplinary team at King’s College London, supported by the King’s Together Fund, sought to deliver a qualitative study of the needs of the domestic abuse sector in the wake of Covid. It did so by means of interviews with workers from 10 non-statutory domestic abuse services of different sizes and focuses, in geographically diverse areas across England and Wales. This was coupled with the analysis of relevant literature and policy documents. The team synthesised these results in a report, which puts forward recommendations for the UK domestic abuse sector as a matter of urgency, as well as the foundations for a recovery plan in the longer-term.
While many of the organisations consulted also had services for men and non-binary people, most considered themselves primarily VAWG (Violence Against Women and Girls) organisations. This is in recognition of the role played by patriarchal norms and structures in perpetuating domestic abuse as well as other forms of gender-based violence; and the way in which women and girls are significantly more likely to be subjected to, rather than perpetrators of, such violence. Notably, according to statistics from the National Domestic Abuse Helpline from the end of 2020, over 93% of those who phoned seeking assistance were women. The majority of the workforce in the UK domestic abuse and VAWG sectors is also female, with women likewise making up all but one of our interviewees.
Gendered fallout of Covid on the domestic abuse sector
During the initial lockdowns, mainstream and social media campaigns helped raise awareness of domestic violence, with many women realising they were experiencing abuse in some shape or form. At the same time, as one worker noted, the lockdown continued to ‘make worse what was already there’, exacerbating abuse and further contributing to what UN Women has referred to as a ‘shadow pandemic’. Demand for services thus greatly increased post-lockdown across the domains of helpline services, advocacy and refuge. The strain on specialist services run ‘by and for’ Black, Asian, minoritised and marginalised survivors were (and continue to be) especially pronounced, given the additional structural inequalities faced, including racism and the Government’s ‘hostile environment’ policies, which serve to criminalise survivors with insecure immigration status, for example, and prevent their access to basic services.
However, following a decade of cuts to the sector, domestic abuse organisations were not in a position to scale up capacity to meet the increase in demand and intensified severity of need. Workers supporting survivors therefore faced a massively elevated caseload (worsened by COVID-related staff absences), alongside extra duties related to disease control and sanitation, the need to organise tests for refuge residents and staff, and the challenges associated with locking down, managing and re-opening refuges. All of these activities were necessary. Nonetheless, they increased strain on the largely female workforce, upon whom greater pressure had often already been applied as a result of the gendered distribution of care and labour during the pandemic, which saw primarily women having to support their families at home. In this way, women experienced ‘structural dysfunction impacting their health status’, with many domestic abuse workers seeing their emotional wellbeing deteriorating as a result.
Moreover, staff had to deal with the increase in emotional labour associated with transferring their services online. Since building trust is extremely important to what domestic abuse workers do, being limited to the virtual realm made it much more difficult and time-intensive to achieve the affective element of their work. As such, the burnout they faced was compounded by the challenges of remote working, which often also meant operating from cramped living spaces and the absence of informal, office-based peer support. As one interviewee put it, the staff in her organisation were ‘almost at breaking point’.
While some staff went on furlough, some of those interviewed who continued working felt an employee assistance programme would have been beneficial, to support their mental health and emotional wellbeing, or to help manage childcare responsibilities. However, little support of this kind was offered by the Government (let alone more radical action to tackle the structures underlying the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on women, for example).
Some strategies were developed within organisations themselves, including providing debriefing sessions, counselling with external professionals, additional internal supervision, staff coffee mornings, and flexible working. The inclusive, compassionate and responsive ethos of so many organisations within the domestic abuse sector meant that staff generally received some additional support where it was needed. In this way, organisations did their best to treat, internally, the symptoms of a problem whose roots were principally external. Of course, this required managers to take on an additional emotional burden, to try and support their staff as much as possible in such a fraught context. However, in a sector where staff were already under a huge amount of pressure and facing budget and resource constraints, this was a rather tall order. In such a context, everybody suffers.
Beyond short-term emergency funds, very little support was offered by the Government during the pandemic. Even the emergency funding scheme introduced was felt, on its own, to be a poor response to the problem faced by services, given (a) the challenges, especially among smaller and specialist organisations, of rapidly scaling up human resource; (b) the short-term nature of the funding, which was neither compatible with the long-term nature of survivors’ needs, nor the complexity of the root causes of domestic abuse and violence against women and girls generally (which could of course not be solved overnight); and (c) the short-term employment contracts it generated, which contributed to increased anxiety among primarily female workers with little security in times of emergency.
Calling for a sustainable & trauma-informed response
A key takeaway from the above analysis is that any short-term response must be complemented by a long-term plan for responding to, addressing and preventing domestic abuse – and, importantly, a careful examination, on a broader structural level, of how the sustainability of the sector might best be achieved. Future policy must therefore concurrently consider: the unequal gendered distribution of care and emotional labour and how this can be tackled; the under-funding and devaluation of feminised labour, which contributes to vital domestic abuse workforces becoming overworked and unwell; the structural inequalities that prevent marginalised and minoritised survivors from accessing support, while simultaneously making it difficult for specialist services to access the resources they need to intervene; and accordingly, the need for longer-term, sustainable funding commitments for domestic abuse prevention efforts, shelters and community-based support, specialist and ‘by and for’ services, and the VAWG sector more broadly.
Trauma-informed approaches should also be integrated into work with domestic abuse survivors, as well as staff – many of whom themselves have experience of violence – as is already the case in many domestic abuse and VAWG organisations. Indeed, the lack of trauma-informed approaches in the statutory sector, and the lack of appropriate statutory services for survivors, can place additional burden on the third sector as the main place in which women’s needs might be met – and, in turn, on its workforce. Ensuring that those at the ‘top’ do their bit to embed system-wide, trauma-informed approaches, including within statutory services, is thus vital for ensuring that the responsibility for staff and survivor wellbeing is not simply shifted downwards or moved elsewhere, alongside thinly guised sticking-plaster interventions for enhancing ‘resilience’. In essence, trauma-informed approaches support systemic change rather than putting the onus on individuals to do better.
Too much unrecognised emotional labour has been invested by the primarily female workforce in not only looking after their clients and each other, but also trying to overhaul a sector whose needs have been chronically unmet and underfunded. It is time that there is an appreciation of this largely invisible yet undoubtedly gendered labour and that this is coupled with concrete action.
By Aoife Sadlier and PJ Annand in collaboration with Andy Guise and Angela Sweeney. We are an interdisciplinary team funded by King’s Together to deliver a qualitative study (‘CANVAS’) into the impact of COVID-19 on the domestic abuse sector in England and Wales. Many of us identify as service user/survivor researchers. Together we have expertise spanning violence, trauma, mental health, health inequalities, gender and sexuality, labour and human rights gained from the third sector, policy and academia.