According the Office for National Statistics there were 13 divorces an hour in England and Wales in 2012. This means that in any organisation there could be someone struggling with the crisis surrounding divorce.

Divorce is clearly a major life transition and may be one that is not wanted. It is a process that is poorly understood, so the divorcing employee is entering a whole new legal and financial world with also new practical difficulties around housing and childcare. No surprise then that divorce is a major stressor. People deal with the stress of divorce in different ways but it may include:

  • eating too much or too little
  • drinking
  • caffeine dependency
  • dependency on drugs (prescribed or illegal)

and these coping mechanisms, alongside the practical changes of divorce can lead to

  • mood swings
  • lack of concentration
  • drop in productivity
  • loss of efficiency
  • poor decision making
  • emotional breakdown

The individual and the departmental happiness and efficiency can be affected by all of these changes.

Being at work during separation or divorce can be a good thing for the employee. Beyond the obvious financial implication (divorce can be expensive and it’s generally better to keep on working) going to work can be an escape from the emotional turmoil of a failing relationship. It can be helpful to maintain a professional demeanour at work. The reliable and predictable reactions of colleagues to everyday work events can be a comfort. There are also structures and routines in the workplace that help the individual maintain performance and focus.

What is happening for the individual in divorce

Most people who have not been divorced have no idea of the emotional impact divorce has. Many of my clients describe it as being like bereavement. So the person divorcing is facing a great emotional onslaught of feelings, and may think that this is unusual (it isn’t), that they are abnormal (they aren’t) and therefore they should hide their grief and pretend that nothing is wrong. While emotionally ‘letting go ‘ is not appropriate in the work environment, realistically appraising feelings and putting in place practical strategies to cope can be very beneficial to both employee and employer.

Information of specific changes that can occur when under stress can be helpful here and can be provided through regular workshops and training.

There is enormous variation in how much support people want from their colleagues when facing a personal crisis. Some prefer not to talk about it at all whereas others need a helpful listener or a discreet quite corner where they can shed a tear when it becomes overwhelming. The individual should be encouraged to work out what support they want and tell others directly. Giving staff the language to talk about their feelings and needs can be helpful – most of us just don’t have the vocabulary to say what we want or to be able to frame this language for different situations in the workplace.

Emotional triggers can be an issue – someone who speaks in the same tone of voice as the ex or has the same pragmatic but cold approach of the soon-to-be-ex-in-law can be especially threatening. Professional help in learning how to handle this kind of emotional overwhelm can be useful.

If ongoing emotional trauma or overwhelm is an issue off-site coaching or counselling may be of value. Offloading some emotional issues outside the workplace to a trained professional can help with emotional management in the short term. The professional coach should also be able to offer strategies and tools to help the employee maintain as normal a life as possible when going through divorce.

Be aware of practical difficulties

As well as an interesting emotional landscape, there are practical difficulties that arise in divorce. Meetings with lawyers and court appearances may eat into work time. Working hours may need to be changed to accommodate new childcare responsibilities. The employee may need to face the issue of child maintenance being deducted from wages by the Child Maintenance Service. Information may need to be provided on pension splitting in divorce. The more prepared the employer is the easier the divorcing person will find this process – having to tell your sad sorry divorce story to several different HR staff before you find the person who deals with pension arrangements is a very discouraging process for all concerned!

Educating other staff

Many people can make flippant remarks when faced with a colleague’s divorce.  This is understandable because it is very difficult to deal with the emotional angst of colleagues so it’s easier to ignore it completely or make a dismissive remark. But saying ‘You’re better off without him’, ‘You’ll find someone else’ or ‘I know just how you feel’ is not helpful. Using appropriate language to deal with personal issues is something that can be discussed and this can give employees an opportunity to clarify their own feelings around personal issues before they are faced with a distraught colleague.

How HR can handle this

There are several things HR departments can do to minimise individual distress and workplace disruption

  • Have a clear structure in place for dealing with major personal issues such as bereavement, major illness and divorce or separation. Make sure staff know who they can approach if they are having difficulties and be very clear about how practical and financial issues such as child maintenance and pensions splitting will be handled. Policies should obviously meet legal requirements but should also aim to support key staff through what might be a very difficult but temporary situation.
  • It is desirable to create an environment where it is seen as OK to ask for help. There is in many workplaces an almost ‘macho’ culture of not discussing any personal issues or admitting to any personal problems. As outlined above, a culture of maintaining a professional demeanour in the workplace is helpful to the individual when everything else is crumbling! But when personal issues cause mood swings or fatigue or general lack of focus this is something the responsible employee should be encouraged to recognise and seek help for.
  • As going through divorce is a process rather than an event, the HR strategy could include an ongoing dialogue so that the HR department is kept informed and the divorcing person’s changing needs can be accommodated. This may mean time off for court attendance or flexible working time.

For the HR function, as well as meeting legal requirements, the focus is on maintaining conditions so that the employee can be happy, productive and continue to contribute to the organisation. Employees are as likely to leave through a perceived lack of support as any actual problem they encounter, so continuing communication and flexibility on both sides is important.

Liz Copeland, The Divorce Mentor