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Dealing with divorce in the workplace: a manager’s guide

Practical ways to support an employee who’s separating from their partner

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How does divorce impact mental health?How does divorce impact work?Managing employee divorce

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  • Divorce is considered one of the most stressful life events, with practical and financial challenges affecting focus at work.
  • Mental health challenges associated with divorce include anxiety, depression, substance abuse, affecting sleep, diet, mood, and overall wellbeing.
  • The stress of divorce also impacts work, leading to decreased concentration, strained working relationships, increased absenteeism, and financial insecurity.
  • Studies show that a significant percentage of employees feel unsupported by their employers during divorce or separation.
  • Companies can help employees navigate the difficulties of divorce by offering flexible working, time off, external support, and mental health support.

According to the ONS, there were 113,505 divorces granted in England and Wales in 2021. And with 90% of divorces happening to people of working age, that’s around 200,000 employees turning up to their desks day after day while going through massive emotional upheaval at home. 

Divorce is famously one of the most stressful life events we can experience, second only to bereavement in terms of its impact on our health, according to Holmes and Rahe’s handy Stress Scale. Even if we put the painful emotional turmoil of a relationship split aside for a second, the practical and financial logistics involved in a divorce or separation are staggering. From dividing assets and expensive legal proceedings to working out co-parenting and potentially moving home, it’s no surprise that the stress of separation affects our ability to focus at work. 

But plenty of companies still don’t have a policy to support employees who are going through a divorce and experiencing their attendance, performance and mood taking a dip. When decisions about reasonable adjustments are left to a line manager’s discretion, there’s a risk that some employees will be treated differently to others in the same situation (the ultimate HR no-no.)

How does divorce impact mental health?

Divorce and separation are associated with an increased risk of mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. The likelihood of substance abuse problems also goes up, and relationship breakdown is considered an established risk factor for suicide, which affects men more than women. On balance, the statistics are pretty scary. 

Physically, the stress of a divorce can significantly affect someone’s sleep, diet and mood. Separation can be a very isolating experience, with support networks and shared friendship groups being divided up along the way – even after an amicable split. Familiar routines will change and activities someone enjoyed before might suddenly feel quite meaningless.

Psychologically, people seem to deal with divorce in a similar way to grief.

Separation is a kind of loss, after all. Their most important person is gone, but so is any certainty around what their future might look like, which can have a big impact on confidence and self-esteem. Like grief, someone going through a divorce may need to confront feelings of denial, anger and guilt before they come around to acceptance. All this drains energy, and can take months – if not years – of mental processing (and ideally, therapy) to work through.

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How does divorce impact work?

Naturally, the stress of a separation has an impact on concentration and productivity, too. Work relationships may feel more strained, and increased absenteeism is common – either because an employee has a tonne of new responsibilities like childcare and court appointments, or because they might be actively struggling with their mental health in the wake of a split.

Someone who’s going through a divorce is also likely to find that their financial situation has changed. Feeling financially insecure can contribute to ongoing stress and a lack of motivation at work, as well as a big loss in productivity for businesses. In fact, one in five UK employees (divorcing or not) say they spend at least six hours each week thinking about or dealing with personal financial issues while at work.

A 2021 study into divorce in the workplace by Rayden found that:

  • 79% of people said their work was affected by relationship breakdown. 
  • 39% said their productivity fell, and 15% admitted to making more mistakes. 
  • 60% said divorce impacted their mental health.
  • 23% had to take sick or unpaid leave.
  • 57% of workers felt unsupported by their employers during a divorce or separation. 

Treating an employee with compassion is, as always, key to helping them feel capable and comfortable at work. Remember that working through a divorce is an individual process, so let go of any preconceived ideas about how long any emotional upheaval is likely to last.

An open conversation with your team member depends a bit on your relationship with them as a manager, but even if you’re close, keep your professional boundaries solid. If your colleague discloses that they’re going through a divorce at home, feel free to ask them how they’re doing at work and what help they might need to feel productive – but don’t dig for any details about their personal life, unless they volunteer that information themselves. 

Other than a chat with your colleague about how divorce might be affecting their role or performance day-to-day, there are things your company can do at a higher level to support someone who’s going through a relationship breakdown.

Spill can survey your team’s mood effortlessly – and our qualified therapists will reach out to anyone who might be struggling.

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Managing employee divorce

Thinking about what support you’re able to offer employees ahead of time will help you to respond calmly and fairly if someone is finding work difficult during a divorce. And statistically, it’s likely to come up. So… a policy is in order. Here are some of the considerations you might like to get on paper.

🏠 Time off

When a separation becomes ‘official,’ it’s normal for both parties to experience a sense of shock and disorientation that might make them feel unable to work. It’s a good idea to describe how much leave employees are entitled to if they request it, whether that leave is paid or unpaid, and who qualifies (do you want this to be divorce-specific, for example, or will you provide time off for any relationship breakdown?)

One of the perks of a policy like this is that it nurtures a sense of trust and transparency between employers and employees. If you have a mental health day policy in place, you might have some of this ground covered already. 

🗓 Flexible working

Giving your employee more control over their hours can be helpful for a few reasons. An early start might mean they can attend that legal meeting over lunch; a late one might help them drop their kids off at school. In the long run this is likely to reduce absenteeism, and also gives them the flexibility to attend any counselling or therapy sessions they need to stay on top of their mental health.

Remember, if you make adjustments like flexible working that will be visible to the rest of the team, make sure to confirm with your colleague whether they’re happy for others to know the reason behind them.

💙 External support

Make sure to include the details for any external support you offer in your divorce policy. This makes it easier for you and other managers to point employees towards impartial, professional help.

Providing frictionless access to therapy (through Spill, if you like) is a valuable benefit for anyone experiencing marital separation. Counselling can offer a non-judgemental space to reflect on your relationship, get some clarity on your feelings and learn coping strategies for the future. It’s also an effective treatment for anxiety, depression and a number of other mental health challenges. 

We’re not always a big fan of Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs), mostly because they don’t provide great value in terms of proactive mental health support – but if your EAP provides access to personalised financial and legal advice, this might be one situation where an EAP comes into its own. Data from Zurich UK showed that the number of employees seeking advice on separation and divorce from their EAP jumped by 73% between 2021 and ‘22.

You could also take inspiration from Hearst Corporation, who made headlines earlier this year when it offered all 12,000 employees a ‘divorce benefit’ in partnership with SupportPay. That’s an app which is designed to help parents manage their finances through a divorce. You could support external resources like these by delivering internal training on financial wellbeing for your whole team, too. 

📝 Mental health policy

This should live in a separate document, but it’s a good idea to give it a polish and link to it in any guidance about support for divorcing employees. If your employee does begin to experience anxiety, depression or any other mental health condition as a result of their split, then you’ll need clear guidance on how to support them best. We’ve put together some specific guides on managing coworkers with mental health conditions, and a framework to build your own mental health policy which might help. 

Another way to support your divorcing colleagues (and your single or happily married ones, for that matter) is to implement a robust employee wellbeing survey. That means you’ll be able to spot when your team’s mood takes a dip and take action quickly. Find out how to create your own wellbeing survey or download our easy template below.

Divorce is a stressful and disruptive thing with profound implications for someone’s physical and mental wellbeing. Showing your support for employees going through a painful separation has proper business benefits like improved retention rates and a stronger recruitment brand, as well as all the warm and fuzzies of knowing you’ve helped someone personally through a really tough time.

Spill works with fully qualified BACP- and NCS-registered counsellors with 80+ areas of expertise, including specialists in relationships.

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