· 2 min read · Features

Relationship breakdowns are a risk to wellbeing


A groundbreaking study revealed between one-third and half of adults experiencing divorce and separation report levels of mental distress high enough to warrant further attention by their GP.

In fact, one in five men exhibited levels of mental distress so high as to be deemed at risk of depression. 

This is not 'just another survey' by an EAP provider of financial services trying to justify an extension to existing provision. It is the conclusion of unbiased academics at the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) drawing upon longitudinal household data going back to 1991. 

The degree to which mental health is negatively impacted by divorce and separation will certainly be news to HR and wellbeing professionals. It was news to almost everyone, since previous academic studies have not focused on this aspect of relationship breakdown. 

But how big a risk to employee wellbeing is it? We know from census and ONS data that over half an employer’s workforce will either be married or in a cohabiting relationship, and that approaching half of these relationships will fail. Thereafter, it can take up to two years for mental wellbeing to return to pre-separation levels. 

By virtue of their impact and incidence, divorce and separation are a risk to wellbeing. Notwithstanding the importance of embedding early stage detection within EAP strategy, what are employers supposed to do when divorce and separation is revealed as the primary cause for mental distress? 

Existing staples such as signposting to family mediation, or brokering discounted legal fees, are tantamount to leaving impacted and vulnerable employees to their own devices. Consider this: less than 1% of couples divorcing or separating between 1996 and 2011 went directly to family mediation. This is despite the fact that mediation is relatively quick and extremely successful once underway. 

Family mediation in its unsupported form (without advising lawyers fronting up and supporting the process) fails to meet the perceived needs of separating partners in conflict. Mediation simply does not fulfil the need to have 'someone in their corner' to constrain the behaviour of the other party.

This someone is usually a divorce solicitor, who isn’t predisposed to sharing each new client with a mediator. Solicitors tend to monetise individual clients rather than individual couples. Such behaviour has both constrained the growth of family mediation and fostered huge reticence around accessing legal advice, which can be expensive. 

YouGov’s 2014 Family Law Divorce Survey showed clients paid a wide range of fees, from less than £500 to over £20,000. Such was the degree of price uncertainty that almost 60% of those surveyed said their costs were higher than expected.

It is perhaps not surprising therefore that almost half (47%) of divorcing and separating couples did not seek legal advice between 1996 and 2011. While it is true many separating couples part on amicable terms, others run the risk of being mired in conflict as a result of power imbalance and lack of advice. 

It appears that solicitors and mediators have continually failed to align and develop services built around informed dialogue and early stage resolution. Until this sorry trend is reversed, impacted employees will remain little more than one-time shoppers making a distressed purchase in the mall of family law services. And that’s if they turn to the hired help at all. Either way – as the new findings lay bare – this poses significant risk to both employee and employer alike.

Marc Lopatin is a trained family mediator and director of social enterprise Advantage Resolution, which is developing a model called Lawyer-Supported Mediation. It will be made available to a limited community of employers and trade unions from April 2015 on a pilot basis.