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Are you doing enough to help divorcing employees?

02 December 2015

Are you doing enough to help divorcing employees?


For every loved-up couple looking forward to their first Christmas together another will be embarking on their last. Dashed expectations for a nice Christmas and New Year mean that by January – dubbed ‘divorce season’ in counselling circles – the number of distressed employees struggling to cope with family breakdown will reach its annual peak.

With 42% of marriages ending in divorce and up to a third of all adults at risk of depression at the onset of separation and divorce, the implications for the ability of those splitting up to continue attending and performing effectively at work are significant, not least because it can take up to two years for mental distress levels to return to pre-separation norms1.

Fortunately, there are three key things employers can do to help those employees facing family breakdown to recover as quickly as possible.

1. Accelerate the process

In most cases, not only does the divorcing employee have to come to terms with the loss of their partner, but also the loss of the lifestyle they once took for granted, due to reduced access to their children and the loss of their partner’s income forcing them to accept a compromised home and lifestyle.

All of this requires them to work through the classic stages of a grief process - Denial, Anger, Bargaining (holding onto what they have), Depression and Sadness – before they can come to terms with what’s happened and start seeing the good that might come from the split.

Many employees risk becoming stuck in one of these stages, be it denial, as they refuse to accept their partner’s decision to move on, or anger, as they risk becoming embroiled in a drawn-out divorce. They might also become aggressive or short-tempered in the workplace, or depressed, as they struggle to even get out of bed in the morning, given the extent to which the world as they knew it is changing.

Divorce is both an emotional and practical journey that has to be undertaken. By directing managers to encourage employees coping with divorce to call the Employee Assistance Programme, or join a divorce support group, you can help those who are struggling to tap into the independent, professional support needed to assist them to move through each stage, work through their feelings and take any tough decisions needed.

This sort of help is essential. The longer people take to move through the grief process, the longer they will experience feelings of rejection, failure, shame and guilt, which are an inevitable part of coming to terms with what has happened.

2. Encourage mediation over the courts

When finances are limited, children are involved or the divorcing employee feels angry about the events that led to the end of the relationship (such as unfaithful behaviour), fighting can come to the fore. The injured party will often want to inflict hurt in return: “You cheated on me so I get the house and you get nothing.”

This can in turn lead the employee to seek a settlement through the courts, hoping to experience the satisfaction of having a judge come down firmly on their side.

The unfortunate reality is that, once courts get involved, all the power is handed over to a third party - and anyone looking for emotional justice will be disappointed.

Painful as it is, a far better approach is for divorcing employees to work with their partners, under the guidance of a family mediator, to prioritise an agreement as soon as possible. The longer a break-up or divorce is allowed to drag on, the more likely separating couples are to become embroiled in conflict, impacting negatively on their own psychological health and their children’s mental and emotional wellbeing.

Family mediation has proven to be a highly efficient solution, with agreement rates of almost 80% recorded by the Ministry of Justice. With this in mind, Validium has decided to work with with Dialogue First, a lawyer-based mediation service, to give employees facing divorce, or relationship breakdown, the opportunity to have a free consultation on how they can seek a settlement through mediation, rather than the courts.

3. Don’t make assumptions

Each person’s response to divorce is different. Some employees will feel threatened by the prospect of losing their source of security and everyday lifestyle as they knew it. This can cause them to experience huge emotional turmoil, with rational thinking becoming impossible if they are overwhelmed by fear and anxiety. This can evoke feelings of intense trauma, forcing them to freeze, flee or fight.

Clearly, the sooner employees can work through the grief stages outlined in section 1, the sooner they can start to perform again. In the meantime, they could well benefit from being assigned less stressful projects at work and given more flexibility, or even some time off, to help them to deal with their loss. Managers would also benefit from calling the EAP for guidance on supporting anyone who is behaving erratically at work, as this still needs to be addressed. On the other hand, some employees will actually find themselves able to stay focused and productive at work, viewing the mental distraction this provides as a welcome break from the emotional responses they’re going through in their personal life. Again, the approach needs to be highly individual.

Either way, it’s important not to make assumptions about how well the employee is or isn’t coping. Managers or HR should be encouraged to make compassionate enquiries about how people are actually doing and whether there are any adjustments to their working arrangements that could be made to support them. It’s also important – and potentially life-saving – to keep a watchful eye on employees going through divorces who appear particularly isolated, as this could put them at increased risk of suicide or self-harm. Men who are in denial about the state of their relationship, or in shock at having been suddenly left by their partner (and children) are particularly at risk.

1 Research compiled by the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER)