Do you suspect abuse? Look before you leap

Experts advise a combination of caution, caring

Wellness professionals suspecting an employee is a victim of spousal abuse may be tempted to take an immediate, strong action; but experts advise that a "go slow" approach will most likely lead to a more positive outcome.

"Direct confrontation or accusing statements rarely produce the desired results," notes Edward Jones, PhD, corporate clinical director of PacifiCare Behavioral Health, a Van Nuys, CA-based managed health care company. "Open-ended statements such as You don’t seem yourself lately,’ or You seem so upset lately,’ frequently can open the lines of communication. Victims are frequently ashamed or feel that they have somehow brought the abuse upon themselves, and are therefore often quite secretive."

"If we noticed that job performance was being affected, possibly by frequent absenteeism, or their personality has shifted, and is affecting other employees, we would bring them in [for a conference], and tell them that we’d noticed something was different," adds Karen Murvin, human resources client manager for PacifiCare. "We try to make them feel comfortable and let them know that we’re there to offer them support. We would never ask exactly what was going on, but just by letting them know that something is affecting their job performance, the company has become involved."

Learning to read the signs

There are a number of signs that may indicate such a problem exists, says Jones. They generally appear over a course of time, and can include frequent bruises and/or broken bones, which are usually explained as self-caused accidents. "The individual avoids visiting the same MD more than once, going instead to urgent care or emergency rooms for treatment," he notes. "Often victims of spousal abuse are self-deprecating and suffer from a severe lack of self-esteem. They are often absent from work and may appear distraught and disheveled."

Jones adds, "Personnel involved in the wellness field should all be trained in the signs, symptoms and treatment of perpetrators and victims of domestic violence." The employer’s EAP would usually serve as a resource for such training, he says.

Employee must make first move

No matter how strong the temptation to help, wellness professionals must recognize that "the employee needs to make the contact," says Murvin. "We can go so far as to make the call to the EAP and hand them the phone. Frequently, people just need to be reminded of the EAP, because a lot of employees forget it’s there for them. With the expanding role for EAP in positive change into areas such as fitness and alternative health care, the referral is less intimidating. It doesn’t necessarily mean, Something must be wrong with me if I’m being referred to the EAP.’" The employer can make referral to the EAP a component of a job performance corrective action plan, she adds.

While you can’t actually call the EAP yourself, "A wellness professional should suggest or help the victim seek help as soon as possible," says Jones. This may involve helping the person contact their EAP, a counselor, a shelter, or even the police. Often there are relatives who can assist the person and provide them with a safe place to stay. "Once the situation has been referred to a professional, it would be important for the wellness professional to remain available in the background if needed," Jones adds.

Follow-up options limited

Wellness professionals who are anxious to find out how the employee is doing must understand that their options are limited. "We can do job performance referrals to the EAP, and the EAP counselor can let the supervisor know if the individual has showed up for counseling appointments. Beyond that, due to confidentiality laws, no information can be forthcoming from the EAP counselor," says Murvin.

However, Jones notes, "Once the person is out of the battering situation, improvement in their physical health and anxiety level is quite observable and dramatic. And the wellness professional may simply ask the employee how they are feeling."

Don’t forget the men

It’s important to remember, says Jones, that men can be victims of spousal abuse. "If the victim of spousal abuse is a male, the signs would be roughly the same. The male may be more ashamed of his situation, possibly feeling humiliated that a woman is abusing him."

If the employee (male or female) is the abuser, the employer must approach the situation from a job-performance perspective. "Frequently, abusers are angry, insecure people who have difficulty with authority figures and their peers," Jones explains. "If angry outbursts are a problem at work, the [employee] may be referred to the EAP. If an employee admits that he is being abused, the co-worker or supervisor may suggest that he call the EAP for assistance."

That suggestion often represents all that the employer can do in a suspected abuse situation. However, "If a restraining order has been issued, we would want a copy in order to show our security guards," says Murvin.

There are additional resources you can suggest to your employees, says Jones. "The United Way publishes a free directory of services that lists resources for victims of domestic violence. They also operate a crisis hot-line in each area," he notes. "And police departments usually have a listing of resources for domestic violence."

Edward Jones, Clinical Director, Karen Murvin, Human Resources Client Manager, PacifiCare Behavioral Health, 5990 Sepulveda Blvd., Van Nuys, CA 91411. Telephone: (818) 782-1100.