Divorce can be traumatic, affecting people profoundly at home and at work. We examine the effects of relationship breakdown on employee wellbeing and how employers can minimise its disruption.
“Divorce is like a death. This may sound over-theatrical but it’s true. You experience the emotional blowtorch of a bereavement, backdrafted by a devastating slight on your character. You are alone, unloved and unwanted, beginning various stages of separation grief that will probably last the rest of your life.”
This harrowing description of the psychological impact of a divorce is recounted in The Times magazine and perfectly encapsulates the psychological turmoil, bewilderment and pain experienced by many involved in a separation or divorce. And yet terrible though it is, it doesn’t begin to capture the full magnitude of the impact of a break-up. The level of disruption, especially when the divorce is antagonistic, is unprecedented. It may involve losing the home and becoming estranged from social networks. It is usually shattering for the finances, as two households cost more than one and it can result in reduced contact with children if there are any. And divorces are frequently long, messy and costly, with a great deal of negotiation about the division of assets.
There are also significant health implications. Divorced or widowed people are 20% more likely to succumb to chronic health conditions, including cancer, diabetes or heart disease. Meanwhile, the mortality rate for divorced men is nearly 250 percent higher than it is for married men. There is an impact on mental health too. The Journal of Applied Social Psychology found that the ongoing conflict with an ex-spouse that is frequently associated with divorce, has a significant negative impact on mental health. The risk of suffering depression is nearly 3 times greater for both men and women, following relationship breakdown.
Whether we’re talking financially, psychologically, or emotionally, there is a heavy price to pay when a relationship ends. People often find themselves in a very low place after a break-up and this can persist for a long time as they try to pick up the pieces of their lives. One man movingly described his feelings at this moment – “I made the marriage the be-all and end-all, and when I saw that crumbling, I felt like my identity was crumbling.”
Divorce is immensely disruptive and involves profound changes for people’s lives, so it’s not surprising that it has such a detrimental impact on their wellbeing. And that impact isn’t left on the doorstep when they enter the workplace. There is growing evidence that the cost to businesses when employees are in the throes of a divorce is considerable. A US study found that divorce costs North American businesses $6 billion a year in lost productivity, stress related health costs, absenteeism and increased health premiums. It has been estimated that employee productivity drops by 40 percent, during the six months prior to, and in the year after a divorce. And a British study found that 9% of employees had quit their job as a result of divorce, or knew someone that had.
So how does this all play out in the workplace? The anger, grief and loss that is commonly associated with divorce or separation can make it very hard for an employee to remain focused on tasks. Time management can be a problem, as can absenteeism as they become embroiled in meetings with solicitors or are required to attend court hearings. Adjustments to childcare provisions or to elder-care responsibilities following a break up, can also create attendance problems. Employees are also more likely to be distracted by the many twists and turns that ensue as the divorce progresses, some of which need to be responded to in work time. Their attempts to balance new demands alongside existing commitments can leave employees feeling stressed, overwhelmed and exhausted, making it virtually certain to affect their behaviour at work. And that may take many forms, from them being more fractious with colleagues, to bringing less attention to detail in their work or having a greater propensity to make mistakes.
This spillage into the workplace is almost inevitable, just as our work can intrude on our personal lives. Most organisations have no policy on how relationship breakdowns are handled at work, but showing compassion is important to supporting employees at such a difficult time. Because divorce can sometimes be as traumatic as a bereavement, employers should make reasonable allowances for staff to take time out to resolve the more pressing, practical problems they face.
How employers can help
As with so many wellbeing issues, the line manager is key. Encouraging managers to be supportive and to show empathy helps to establish a relationship of trust with the employee that will make it easier for them to confide in the manager when they experience bumps in the road further down the line. It also makes sense for the manager to have regular catch-ups with the employee to review, and help manage their workload, as the changing demands of their situation could affect their ability to balance the competing demands they face.
Many organisations have Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) in place that can help with some of the complex issues that divorcing employees face. Counselling is usually available to deal with the painful feelings that arise and many EAPs offer legal advice, which can help with handling thornier separation issues. Bringing the existence of EAPs to the employee’s attention at an early stage can give them some much needed, confidential support.
Showing some flexibility around work patterns can help an employee to accommodate changes in their life, especially if the break-up has impacted child or elder care arrangements. During the busiest time in the divorce process, it may also make sense to allow the employee to work part-time temporarily.
One of the major consequences of divorce is that people often experience a strong sense of isolation and loneliness. In these circumstances, workplace colleagues can form a crucial and supportive social network. Recognising this and making some allowance for the employee to get support from colleagues – provided that it doesn’t compromise productivity too much – can go a long way in minimising the disruptive, longer-term impact of the split on their performance at work.
With most businesses now serious about the workplace wellbeing agenda, it’s important not to ignore an issue which has serious implications for employee wellbeing. As things stand, most businesses have no specific policies and procedures for addressing relationship breakdown, yet at the Bank Workers Charity we see at first-hand, through the bank employees we support, just how painful and damaging the issue can be. It’s time for companies to address the issue – and it needn’t be costly. As we’ve seen, taking a compassionate view of the needs of employees in the throes of a complicated break-up brings benefits for the employee and the business alike. Moreover, the trust that is built up in the process will engender stronger relationships with managers and greater commitment to the organisation.
The Bank Workers Charity works in partnership with Relate, to provide counselling and support to bank employees who are experiencing personal relationship problems.