Finding ways to better respond to domestic violence at home and in the workplace

Nadine Wathen

FIMS Professor Nadine Wathen applies the “irritation” method to her teaching philosophy in her Master’s and PhD-level Health Information Science courses. She aims to get students “irritated” enough about a topic to turn it into a thesis or major research project.

Unfairness and bullies “irritate” Wathen a lot. “We’ve currently got a society that has a lot of its priorities backwards, where we’re more concerned with protecting the interests of the well-off than we are of helping our most vulnerable,” she says.

Among the most vulnerable are victims of family violence. Wathen’s research develops and evaluates interventions for women and children who experience violence, and aims to enhance the science of knowledge translation and exchange to ensure that new knowledge stemming from this research is made available, in appropriate ways, to health decision-makers, which include policy-makers, health-care providers, advocates, and members of the public.

Wathen is co-leading several government-funded research projects on domestic violence, among them The PreVAiL (Preventing Violence Across the Lifespan) Research Network, a global research collaboration of more than 60 researchers and knowledge user partners from around the world. Many initiatives make up the PreVAiL network, including the new VEGA (Violence, Evidence, Guidance and Action) Project, which received funding from the Public Health Agency of Canada to develop public health resources for health and social service providers in the area of family violence.

Another related initiative is the SSHRC-supported DV@Work Network, from which emerged a pan-Canadian survey on domestic violence and the workplace – the largest survey of its kind in the world, with more than 8,400 respondents.
Published last year in collaboration with FIMS, the Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women & Children (CREVAWC) in Western University’s Faculty of Education, and the Canadian Labour Congress, “Can Work Be Safe When Home Isn’t?” reported that more than a third of workers surveyed said they have had personal experience with domestic violence. Among those who had experienced domestic violence, more than one-third said the violence affected their ability to get to work; more than half said it followed them to work in some way, such as harassing phone calls from or stalking by the abusers; and the vast majority said it affected their work performance in some way, for example, due to being distracted, tired, or unwell.

The report also observed that whether or not that they had personally experienced domestic violence, the vast majority of respondents believed it impacts the work lives of those experiencing abuse “quite a bit” or “a whole lot.” And yet, most of those surveyed also believed that employers and union officials are unaware when domestic violence is affecting employees. Most respondents believed that workplace supports such as paid leave and safety policies for domestic violence can mitigate the impact of such violence on the work lives of employees.
Wathen says these results have generated a lot of interest. She and her colleagues presented the findings to a number of unions that are now using them to show how significant the impacts of domestic violence in the workplace are, and are pushing to get paid domestic violence leave embedded in collective agreements - a proactive practice recommended in the report.

The unions’ efforts are an example of translating research evidence into practice, also known as knowledge translation and exchange – another of Wathen’s research areas.

“No matter what kind of research you do – from basic to applied, theoretical to action-oriented, arts and humanities to engineering – I believe it’s vital to communicate what’s important about that work, and how it relates (sometimes obviously and immediately, and sometimes farther down the line) to the public good. This means understanding what people need and want to know, and how best to communicate it to them,” says Wathen, who is also co-director of Western’s Lab for Knowledge Translation in Health. “My current favourite term is ‘knowledge mobilization’ and what I imagine is ideas moving -  from one person, organization or system to another – and re-shaping to help people think in new ways about stubborn problems; that’s how those problems, whatever they are, get solved.”

An interdisciplinary researcher – Wathen holds an affiliate appointment in Western’s Department of Women’s Studies and Feminist Research and is a Research Scholar at CREVAWC – Wathen was recently inducted into the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists, a national system of multidisciplinary recognition for the emerging generation of intellectual leadership in Canada.
Following the announcement of her induction, Wathen acknowledged the need to take an interdisciplinary approach to the complex issue of violence against women and children.

“Family violence is one of society’s so-called ‘wicked problems’ – it’s highly consequential, complex and contentious, and requires a truly interdisciplinary approach,” she says. “Essentially we need ‘all hands on deck’ to tackle this issue, and it needs to balance the expressed need of those exposed to violence, those delivering service and setting policies, and the researchers who are trying to develop and communicate the best possible knowledge to improve what we’re doing for women, children, and men exposed to or perpetrating violence.”