Be proactive when supporting employees going through divorce

Employers need to be proactive about supporting employees going through divorce, argues Karen Matovu, clinical leader of psychological workplace solutions, at The Validium Group.

With 42% of marriages ending in divorce, according to the Office for National Statistics, the impact on employees is highly relevant to the workplace. Not only are one-third of all adults at risk of developing depression at the onset of separation and divorce, but it can take up to two years for mental distress levels to return to pre-separation norms (Institute for Social and Economic Research, 2014).

This has huge implications for the ability of those going through a break-up to attend and perform at work as they did before. In most cases, not only does the divorcing employee have to come to terms with the loss of their partner, but also the loss of the lifestyle they once took for granted, due to reduced access to any children and the loss of their partner’s income forcing them to accept a compromised home and lifestyle.

All of this requires them to work through the classic stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining (holding onto what they have), depression and sadness – before they can come to terms with what has happened and start seeing the good that might come from the split.

Many employees risk becoming stuck in one of these stages as they refuse to accept their partner’s decision to move on, or experience anger as they risk becoming embroiled in a drawn-out divorce. They might also become aggressive or short-tempered in the workplace and/or depressed.

Divorce is an emotional and practical journey that has to be undertaken. Directing managers to encourage employees coping with divorce to talk to someone they trust, call an employee assistance programme (EAP) or join a divorce support group can help those who are struggling to tap into the support needed to assist them to move through each stage and make any tough decisions.

The longer people take to move through the grief process, the longer they will experience feelings of rejection, failure, shame and guilt, which are an inevitable part of coming to terms with what has happened.

Encourage mediation

Another way in which employers can help is to encourage employees to stay in control of their divorce, instead of attempting to seek a settlement through the courts. Most employees who seek a court settlement feel angry about the events that led to the end of the relationship (such as unfaithful
behaviour). Unfortunately, the courts are not designed to come down firmly on one side or the other and anyone seeking emotional justice will be left disappointed.

Painful as it is, a far better approach is for divorcing employees to work with their partners, under the guidance of a family mediator, to prioritise an agreement as soon as possible. The longer a break-up or divorce is allowed to drag on, the more likely separating couples are to become embroiled in conflict, impacting negatively on their own psychological health and their children’s mental and emotional wellbeing.

Family mediation has proven to be a highly efficient solution, with agreement rates of almost 80% recorded by the Ministry of Justice, yet just 1% of separating couples go directly to family mediation (Barlow et al, 2014). To reduce the negative mental health implications for those going through a divorce, some EAP providers offer employers the opportunity to put those going through a break-up in touch with services such as Dialogue First. This lawyer-based mediation service gives employees facing divorce, or relationship breakdown, the opportunity to have a free consultation on how they can seek a settlement through mediation, rather than in the courts.

Treat each employee as an individual

Employers should bear in mind that each person’s response to divorce is different. Some employees will feel threatened by the prospect of losing their source of security and everyday lifestyle as they knew it. They could benefit from being assigned less stressful projects at work and given more flexibility, or even some time off, to help them deal with their loss.

Others, who find solace in work and find themselves able to stay focused and productive, will welcome the mental distraction that work provides from the emotional responses that they are going through in their personal life.

Rather than making assumptions about how people are coping, HR, OH and line managers should try to make compassionate enquiries about how individuals are coping and whether or not there are any adjustments to working arrangements that could be made to support them. It is also important to keep a watchful eye on employees who appear particularly isolated, as this could put them at increased risk of suicide or self-harm.


Barlow A, Hunter R, Smithson J, Ewing J (2014). “Mapping paths to family justice”, Economic and Social Research Council.

Brewer M, Nandi A (2014). “Partnership dissolution: how does it affect income, employment and well-being?” Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex, Working Paper Series, No.2014-30.


About Karen Matovu

Karen Matovu is clinical leader of psychological workplace solutions at The Validium Group.
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