· 3 min read · Features

How HR policies can help an employee cope with a relationship breakdown


A relationship breakdown, separation and divorce are intensely private and profound experiences. All the psychological defences come into play: denial, procrastination, anger and fear. It is a long and lonely experience and the person suffering feels that their situation is uniquely awful. It is important that an employer understands how best to manage an employee going through this difficult process and of what assistance HR can be in easing the impact on an employee's performance.

The first likely issue to surface will be the impact on the quality of the employee's work; and the impact on the employee's requirements for flexible working time. Profound emotional upheaval takes its toll on someone's concentration. In terms of their work, they may start to make mistakes that they did not previously make.

The second most likely reason that problems will come to the attention of an HR manager relate to punctuality and time required off. This could turn into a more long-term issue for management, particularly if the outcome of the separation involves a shared parenting arrangement for children or ongoing court proceedings. 

The best that an HR manager can do is look at general support and focus on short-term practical issues and solutions. Very often the progression of events that the employee will face will be an increasing breakdown of the domestic relationship, quite possibly followed by self-initiated counselling, and finally contemplation of legal outcomes. Each of those stages is bewildering and difficult, and in each case there are practical steps that can be taken. It is not intrusive for an HR manager to be able to suggest options. 

The person will need advice - very often they will talk to their GP but also they may seek the advice of an experienced counsellor not for joint counselling, but to think through their own position. 

If both parties to the relationship breakdown recognise there is a problem, they may undertake joint counselling. If they have got to that stage, it is unlikely the employee will be seeking the assistance of an HR manager to suggest a joint counsellor but it is possible. But if the situation is irreparable, they will seek legal advice. 

It is common that someone will consult legal advisers very early on at the point where they feel their relationship is in difficulty. They want to know where they stand in legal terms, and they want a road map. In most cases we frequently discuss with them how they might approach the issues, how they might open up the issues in discussion with their spouse, where they can seek counselling or other similar assistance, and some practical steps in the meanwhile.

Therefore the HR manager can play a crucial role in pointing the employee towards advisers and counsellors who may be able to help them.

Demands on an employee's time are the other question.  Sick leave arising from stress is should probably be referred back to the employee's doctor and counsellors but inevitably the employee will need some flexibility to accommodate other time requirements.

Relationship and marriage counselling is often available in the late afternoon and evenings, but of course much has to take place in normal working hours. Like mediation appointments, it is booked in advance and an employee should be able to provide reasonable notice. 

Appointments with solicitors are often less predictable. Sometimes appointments have to be altered or fitted in at fairly short notice and sometimes the lawyer has to take instructions on new points at fairly short notice. The solicitor needs to be able to telephone the client during working hours and conduct occasional confidential discussions with them, and I suggest that a wise HR manager will facilitate this. 

If court proceedings are taking place, the court's dates take priority. Judges have very little inclination to defer matters by reason of an employee's work requirements. First, they have heard it too often, and second, the court simply could not function in those circumstances. In advance of a court appointment, the client will probably need to have a substantial consultation with their solicitor and or barrister.  One would normally expect that to take the best part of a morning or afternoon.

Finally, there is the issue of accommodating the long-term requirements for an employee.  Shared parenting is becoming widely accepted. In that situation very commonly one parent will look after the children from, say, Monday to Thursday, and the other will have them from after school on Thursday to school on Monday morning. That may require an assurance from the employer that work demands will not impinge on the essential business of getting the children to school or collecting them from school. Employers are often ready to accommodate these requirements.

I have had several very successful examples where the employee's working hours have been arranged so that, for example, they work longer hours for three days a week to have the necessary flexibility on the other two days of the week. 

If the parents are on reasonably good terms, it may be possible for the arrangements to be varied if an unexpected demand arises from work. But not all parents are co-operative.

An HR manager is likely to only slowly learn that relationship breakdown is behind an employee's performance issues. Once known, the best that can be done is to provide access to good advisers.

Henry Brookman is a partner at Brookman Solicitors