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16 Feb 2023
by Emily Foy

A lawyer’s tips for helping workers through separation or divorce

With many companies signing up to the Positive Parenting Alliance, here’s what they can do if they want to support employees further

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Divorce is often cited as one of life’s most stressful events, ranking second only to the death of a spouse in many studies. Statistics show that while just over half of the UK population will marry, an estimated 40% of those marriages will end in separation. That affects a significant proportion of the workforce.

With an enhanced focus on supporting employees through all life stages and a more holistic approach to wellbeing post-pandemic, it should perhaps therefore not be surprising that PwC, Unilever, Metro Bank and Tesco are among a host of major UK employers who have joined an initiative pledging to give extra support to families navigating a separation.

Research by the Positive Parenting Alliance has generated some stark statistics on the impact of family breakdown on employee performance. More than 90% of respondents reported that their work performance suffered when they were going through a divorce and an alarming 95% saying that their mental health at work was affected.

Furthermore, over two-thirds of employees admitted being less efficient at work and four in 10 reported taking time off for the separation. As a family lawyer for 15 years, this is something that I can attest to. Time and time again I saw clients (including partners, directors, senior executives and leaders in their profession), becoming simply overwhelmed by the additional physical and emotional burdens heaped on them as a result of a separation or divorce.

Under the Positive Parenting Alliance’s scheme, participating employers will pledge to:

  • Amend HR policies to include divorce or separation alongside bereavement or serious illness as a “significant life event”.
  • Allow parents to have access to flexible working arrangements to enable them and their family to adjust to the newly configured family arrangements.
  • Provide signposting or access to counselling or therapeutic support.
  • Introduce guidance on accessing support services educating parents on how to separate amicably, compassionately and with the welfare of their children front and centre.

While the initiative has been largely heralded as positive, critics argue that the cost for small and medium enterprises may be too great and that work could often prove a welcome distraction for those going through the trauma of a divorce.

Though the fears are understandable, these can be ameliorated and the risks of ignoring divorce and separation by far outweigh the risks of introducing these policies. In my law career, I saw first-hand how the consequences of a divorce can affect all areas of a person’s wellbeing: physical, emotional, social, psychological and financial. It is therefore inevitable that the immense burden of a divorce or separation may have a demonstrable effect on an employee’s performance at work.

While a separation brings huge emotional turmoil, it is often the administrative and logistical burden is the hardest for people to manage and can leave employees exhausted, drained and unable to focus.

There is often also an effect on physical health, with an increase in sick leave or a deterioration into depression, both of which affect not only the employee but also their colleagues, who are left shouldering the burden of an additional workload.

The impact doesn’t end with the divorce being finalised either, with ongoing burdens of implementing a court order, house moves, address changes, co-parenting and the strain of the new life arrangements.  At worst, an employee may decide that they have no option than to resign.

For HR leaders who are considering signing up to the Positive Parenting Alliance initiative, a support pack can be downloaded here.  For those organisations who want to go further to support their employees, here are my top tips:

1. Don’t underestimate the power of human connection and understanding. Arrange a discussion with your employee, listen and show compassion.

2. Support employees to manage their personal stressors with referrals to holistic organisations that take on administrative and logistical tasks for them, before they become overwhelming.

3. Stress often leads to poor decision making. If an employee is showing these signs, intervene sooner rather than later. Use gentle reminders and diarise check-ins to prevent problems before they arise.

4. Bear in mind that tasks such as liaising with legal professionals, attending court or even having counselling may need to be done during office hours. Consider allowing an employee time off to attend these appointments without using holiday, as one might for medical appointments.

5. Provide easily accessible information about the benefits employees are entitled to and how to quickly change administrative details such as death in service or pensions nominees, family group medical insurance policies and emergency contacts.

6. Consider what benefits could be used by employees who are separating and collate them in one document. Is there private medical care that could provide counselling? Is there an employee assistance programme or crisis therapy service? Do you have other benefits that could help?

Companies are built on people. The difficult period will end, and you don’t want to lose an excellent employee for the sake of a little investment during turbulent times. Provide calm, clarity and compassion and navigate the storm alongside them and you will create a grateful and loyal employee for years to come.

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