Why 'divorce season' is a wake-up call for workplace mental health

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Multi-disciplinary thinking is needed to support employees during relationship breakdowns

A major academic study published in late 2014 revealed that at the onset of separation between a third and half of adults report levels of mental distress high enough to be deemed at clinical risk of depression.

This is not to say that HR and OH professionals aren’t alive to how destabilising relationship failure can be. Rather it’s a question of how best to react. Leaving employees to their own devices speaks neither to workplace wellbeing nor the interests of impacted children.

Just 1% of separating couples attend family mediation. And such is the fear of paying divorce lawyers that almost half avoid legal advice altogether, with far-reaching impacts.

Major employers could be forgiven for thinking this is why they contract out to EAP and counselling services. But ‘go-to provision’ is no substitute for the overarching structure and momentum that an employee – and their family – need to minimise conflict at a time of relationship breakdown.

A one-to-one counsellor – or a one-off session of legal information with an EAP adviser – have no leverage over the thinking and actions of the employee’s partner. So what happens if the latter walks into a divorce lawyer’s office the next day? Letters will soon be flying back and forth, with mediation unlikely to feature (despite 2014 government data showing almost 80% of people that began mediation left with an agreement of their mutual design). This marks out relationship breakdown as a real challenge for mental health in the workplace since the employee is only half of the equation.

Furthermore, staff tend to overly associate EAP provision with counselling, which undoubtedly deters impacted men from coming forwards. This is despite men being most at risk of depression at the onset of separation. the peak age for divorce matches the peak age for male suicide: 40 to 44 years.

What is required is an approach that sets out to combine early stage intervention with ongoing support should separation result. There can be no hierarchy of intervention. Counsellors, lawyers and mediators need to apply their skills at the appropriate time. For example, the carrot of a free legal consultation with a family lawyer may resonate more with men when it comes to early stage intervention. And in a more structured intervention, that family lawyer can also be trained to highlight the value of ‘letting off steam’ via that employee’s EAP or counselling service.

The missing piece here is the willingness of major employers to insist upon more multi-disciplinary thinking here. Encouragingly, it’s starting to happen. If more were to cotton on they could not only plug a sizable hole in existing wellbeing provision, but be a catalyst for the type of transformation of family law services that has been on people’s lips for decades.

Marc Lopatin is a family mediator and founder of Dialogue First, a network of family lawyers and mediators

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