A major risk to wellbeing that remains taboo

It might surprise you to learn that one of the biggest risks to workplace wellbeing does not emanate from the office. Yet its mere presence – often veiled – can disrupt workplace relationships and lead to sustained bouts of absenteeism and presenteeism.

This is none other than divorce & separation and it’s no small matter for employee and employer alike:

  • At the onset of separation, between a third and a half of employees – and their partners – are at risk of clinical depression. It can take up to two years for mental distress levels to normalise which is on a par with bereavement.
  • Approaching 10% of your workforce will likely be experiencing relationship difficulties. This is not surprising given Office for National Statistics data states over 40% of marriages end in divorce with over 90% of those divorces happening to those of working age.
  • Your Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) does not have this covered. Tax exemption rules imposed by the HMRC mean EAP support is neither specialist nor commensurate to the risk posed to mental health.

While compassionate leave is an enshrined part of workplace policy, family breakdown remains taboo. And it’s here that employers committed to wellbeing are storing up risk. This is particularly true for impacted male employees since the peak age for divorce now matches up precisely with the peak age for male suicide (40 to 44 years).

At the very least, employers have an enlightened self-interest to provide impacted employees with a modicum of support at what can be a profoundly destabilising time of life. And this routinely comes in the form of EAP.

HR and wellbeing professionals would do well to request EAP utilisation data for divorce and separation (especially among male employees) and bear in mind that – even if employees do reach out – HMRC rules restrict those employees to only contacting their EAP once about the same matter. The same rules also restrict this one-off intervention to just 15-mins of high-level legal information imparted by a non-lawyer.

A small group of major employers – including Royal Mail and Avis – have begun to examine the risk, leading to a more nuanced approach to early stage detection around family breakdown. They’re exploring ways to attract more impacted employees by seeding awareness across internal touch points spanning employee benefits, occupational health, human resources, line managers and internal communications.

info graphic - early-stage-detection

And it’s better risk management that is now driving innovation among family law professionals that want to support impacted employees. This is because forward thinking employers are now looking beyond EAP provision – and to divorce lawyers and family mediators to work in tandem – to maximise the prospects of effective communication and early stage agreement. This is no mean feat given a 2014 academic study estimated just one per cent of separating partners take themselves off to see a family mediator.

It shows the power and leverage that major employers have when risk management is applied as scrupulously to wellbeing as it is to other facets of the organisation. The alternative is leaving employees to grapple with an episode in life every bit as stressful as bereavement.

*Marc Lopatin is a trained family mediator and founder of Dialogue First, a network of lawyers and family mediators supporting employees at a time of separation. www.dialoguefirst.co.uk