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Divorce in the Workplace

Irritability, headaches, sleep problems, loss of appetite; we all probably recognise the symptoms of stress.  In 2013 a survey by the Mental Health Foundation revealed that nearly half of adults felt stressed on a regular basis.  A recent Labour Force survey has also shown that in 2013/14 11.3 million working days were lost in the UK because of stress.

There can be many causes of stress and anxiety, some directly linked to our working environment, others not.  Bereavement, illness and financial difficulties are common causes, as are divorce and relationship breakdown. 

Whilst ideally we all try and keep our personal issues separate from our work life, it is often inevitable that our performance in the workplace is affected when these events occur.  Research undertaken for Resolution in 2014 revealed that 16% of people have taken sick leave because of the anguish of a break up and 9% of people said either they or a colleague have had to leave their job after separation.  Divorce is estimated to cost the British economy up to £46bn every year.  The impact upon employers of relationship breakdown can therefore be dramatic.
Justine Flack, Family Law expert at Howes Percival points out that when a marriage or relationship ends this can often be the trigger for anxiety about a number of issues.  Initially there may be overwhelming grief that the relationship has ended; a feeling that you won't cope with life without the other person.  Sometimes that may be coupled with feelings of anger or hurt over particular behaviour.  Even if you are the instigator of the separation or if both parties agree that the relationship is over, the actual ending of it can be difficult to deal with.

There are then frequently concerns about money.  How will two households be carved out of one?  How will needs be met day by day both now and in the future?  Where will you live?  If you have not dealt with the finances during the relationship or are concerned about the honesty of the other party in disclosing what assets they have, this adds another dimension to those worries.

There may also be anxiety about any children, both in terms of how they will cope with the separation and the arrangements that will be put in place for them to spend time with each parent.  Communicating with your former partner can be stressful in itself.  A parent has to manage their own feelings about the breakdown as well as support their children and should positively promote a child's relationship with the other party.  This is not always an easy thing to do when emotions are running high.

Justine suggests that instructing a solicitor to advise and guide you through these issues can relieve huge amounts of stress.  It is advisable to instruct a solicitor who is a member of Resolution and who adheres to their code of conduct which ensures that lawyers focus upon calming matters rather than inflaming the situation.

A solicitor can explain the process so that you know what to expect; understanding things often makes them less daunting.  Your solicitor will manage the legal aspect for you, give you guidance upon what to expect and help you to make decisions.  An experienced solicitor should be able to give you reassurance and will take on the burden of assessing the financial situation, leaving you free to cope with daily issues.  Handing the divorce process, particularly the financial aspects to a solicitor can be a weight off your mind.

But what about the employer?  Do HR teams have a pastoral role and is there good practice that employers should think about in these circumstances?

Graham Irons, partner in the Employment team at Howes Percival suggests that when employers are dealing with performance, behaviour or attendance issues, it is always important for them to understand any personal circumstances which may be impacting on the workplace.  If an employer is able to understand the circumstances, this may help to explain behaviour and in turn this may help the employee who will have 'got it off their chest'.

He points out that discussing such issues may draw out some specific pressures on the employee due to their family situation where the employer could assist.  This could be something which supports their overall well-being such as providing access to an employee assistance programme or counselling through private medical insurance.  However, it may be more practical assistance such as flexibility on start and finish times in order to help with any childcare strains associated with a separation.

If an employer wanted to take a more proactive approach, Graham says that they could go so far as to provide contact details for local law firms who deal with family law.  He cautions that this has to be balanced against respect for an employee's right to privacy as employees may want to keep their personal issues very separate from their work life.  This therefore needs careful and sensitive handling.  It needs to be made clear to the employee that information is being sought simply to explain behaviour and to see whether there is any assistance which can be given. 

Ultimately, when an employee is facing a breakup in their personal life, it is important for both employees and employers to take steps to manage the situation and its impact on the workplace.  Hopefully this will also avoid an unnecessary break up between the employee and the employer.