Minimising the impact of separation and divorce in the workplace

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The breakdown of a relationship is an extremely stressful and sensitive process. The emotional impact can affect the workplace, due to the seemingly endless stream of legal, financial, housing and childcare decisions employees need to make.

In fact, it is estimated that divorce costs the British economy up to £46 billion every year, and the Chamber of Commerce recently emphasised the intrinsic relationship between employees’ wellbeing and business productivity.

Divorce can be likened to bereavement, with a similar pattern of emotional response including shock, anger, denial, panic, grief and acceptance. Increased absenteeism is common, due to the need for time off to meet with lawyers, appointments in court etc., and the increased personal stress can result in depression and anxiety, which can take employees out of the workplace for extended periods of time.

The impacts of separation and divorce lead to decreased productivity and distracted employees, resulting in poor performance and potential mistakes. It can also cause difficulties in work relationships, with colleagues finding the emotional or professional responses hard to deal with.

However, despite the aforementioned impacts, a recent survey by Com Res found that only 10% of employees felt their employer offered adequate support for those undergoing separation or divorce. Moreover, 56% of those surveyed who were separating or divorcing believe that employers need to offer more support and informed assistance to employees during this difficult time.

Admittedly, it would be difficult to legislate for these particular circumstances, save for offering compassionate leave, but employers should be aware that there are constructive ways of handling matters. Resolution, a national organisation of family lawyers, helps people to manage their separation in a future-focusing manner that minimises conflict, focuses on the needs of any children involved, and helps them to avoid court if they can. Employers should be familiar with organisations that offer advice and information on the alternative approaches to managing relationship breakdown.

With mediation, a trained mediator (often also a family lawyer) provides a structured and informed environment in which parties can discuss and negotiate matters relating to their separation, including finances and children. In the collaborative process, both parties instruct their own solicitors and all meet together to work things out face-to-face in a constructive and non-contentious environment. While working together collaboratively, the parties have the support and legal advice of their own solicitors as they go.

An employee may find that they have to confide in their employer in order to explain the difficulties they are facing. Given the impact divorce can have on both employees’ and their colleagues’ productivity, it is vital that employers can offer constructive and helpful advice on how best to minimise conflict and emotional damage. The best way to do this is to ensure the individual has a good working knowledge of who they can turn to for assistance; Resolution have a good range of leaflets that could be provided as a first step.

It's essential that the employer is attuned to the difficulties faced by the employee, has the time to listen and most importantly, can offer constructive information on how best to manage the situation.

Mari Magnussen is a family solicitor, collaborative lawyer and mediator at law firm Barlow Robbins 

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