The New “D Day” and What This Might Mean for Businesses

April 1, 2022

Written by
Emily Foy

The consequences of a divorce can be huge and affect all areas of a person’s life: physical, emotional, social, psychological and financial. It is therefore almost inevitable that the immense burden and strain of a separation will have a demonstrable effect on an employee’s wellbeing and, accordingly, their performance at work.

Why divorce is no longer a private family issue

Divorce is often cited as one of life’s most stressful events, ranking second only to the death of a spouse in many categorisations.
Coupled with the statistics showing that just over half of the UK population will marry (50.6%in 2020 according to the ONS ), and nearly half of those marriages end in separation, this is a large proportion of a workforce.  Looking beyond that to those who are cohabiting or in other significant relationships and the numbers increase yet further.  

Historically, the tabloid coined “divorce day” refers to the first working Monday in the New year; a day when law firms supposedly see an increase in new enquiries as a result of a stressful Christmas with family or the resolve to make changes in the NewYear.  However, the reality is that this is probably just pent-up demand after a Christmas period, with families reluctant to unsettle the balance just before the holidays, law firms being shut over the Christmas period and parents waiting until children have returned to school.

However, for those in England and Wales, a new “D Day” looms which may have more rational reason for an upsurge in new applications.  On 6 April 2022, the new and much anticipated “no fault” divorce is to be introduced, with spouses no longer required to blame each other to apply for an immediate divorce.  It is believed that many couples have been waiting for this change in the law in order to commence proceedings.
So what does this change in an immensely private field of law mean for businesses?

The consequences of a divorce can be huge and affect all areas of a person’s life: physical, emotional, social, psychological and financial. It is therefore almost inevitable that the immense burden and strain of a separation will have a demonstrable effect on an employee’s wellbeing and, accordingly, their performance at work.  

A separation brings with it not only emotional turmoil but also a huge and unexpected administrative burden.  Individuals must often deal with the organisation of financial documents, the division of assets, liaising with solicitors, agreeing future care arrangements for children or elderly parents, a house sale or move, potentially stressful and acrimonious Court proceedings and resolving or amending their testamentary arrangements.  The burden can leave employees exhausted, drained and unable to focus, with associated ramifications at work not only for them but for their colleagues and the whole business.

Divorce has an impact on business performance in numerous ways. Invariably, the strain of having to juggle so many complex and emotional tasks will leave the individual exhausted and less able to concentrate at work or to perform to the best of their ability. They might bring these stresses into the workplace which can jeopardise professional relationships and create a toxic or stressful work environment for their colleagues.  They may need to take time out of office hours to communicate with their legal team, to attend meetings or even to attend Court, all of which is historically dealt with in the “working” day.  There is often an effect on physical health, with an increase in sick leave or a deterioration into depression, both of which affect not only the employee themselves but also their colleagues who are left shouldering the burden of an additional workload.  The ecosystem of the workplace is a fragile structure and is easily thrown out of balance.

The impact doesn’t end on the divorce being finalised either, with ongoing burdens of implementing a Court Order, house moves, co-parenting with an ex-partner and the strain of the new life arrangements potentially having an effect for years to come.  At worst, an employee may feel unable to navigate their new life circumstances at the same time as dedicating themselves to a career and decide that they have no option that to leave their position.

With this in mind, what can HR professionals and managers do to try and support employees in this situation?

 1.    Despite it being considered to rank alongside a bereavement in terms of the levels of stress it causes an individual, understanding and support for a divorce is often significantly lacking.  Whilst the majority of businesses have a bereavement policy, very few currently have one for those navigating a divorce.  Consider putting in place a formal policy to support those experiencing a relationship breakdown, coupled with advice for HR professionals or line managers as to how to respond and provide support.

2.    Don’t under-estimate the power of human connection and understanding. Arrange a discussion with your employee to understand what their main stressors are both internally and externally. Listen and show compassion.  Try and help them to manage the external stresses with an action plan or referrals to organisations that can assist and address their internal stresses (even if temporarily) by reallocating, delegating or modifying tasks before they become overwhelming.

3.    Stress often results in distraction or poor decision making.  If an employee is showing these signs then intervene sooner rather than later.  Consider whether formal disciplinary procedures can be avoided or whether issues can be nipped in the bud before they escalate to the stage where disciplinary procedures become inevitable.  Use gentle reminders or diarise check ins to prevent problems before they arise.

4.     Bear in mind that some of the tasks, such as liaising with legal professionals, attending Court or having counselling will need to be done during office hours.  Consider allowing an employee time off to attend these appointments without using holiday, as one might for medical or maternity appointments.  Work together with them to ensure that their work is covered in their absence so they don’t have a huge workload to return to (thus adding to their stresses) or disgruntled co-workers who are having to try and work out what needs to be managed.

5.     Provide clear and easily accessible information about what employees are entitled to and how to easily change administrative details such as death in service nominees, family group medical insurance policies, pensions beneficiaries, personal information and emergency contacts.

6.     Try and create a safe, courteous and open work culture.  Whilst many people may wish to remain private at work about their personal lives, make it a safe space for them to talk if they feel they need to.  

7.     Consider what resources or benefits the company already offers that could be utilised by the employee. Is there private medical care they could use to deal with physical complaints or access counselling?  Is there an EAP or therapy service for any short term or crisis therapeutic needs? Do you have other benefits in place that could assist them?

8.    Post pandemic there has been a marked shift in the expectations of employees.  The benefits offered and the wellbeing strategies adopted by a firm are front and centre of what employees are prioritising in the job hunt.  Consider putting in place provisions, benefits and practical support to assist and guide employees going through a separation or experiencing other major life events and to ameliorate the effect on the business.  The cost to organisations might be slight but the value to the employee and, hence, the impact on the ability to perform should not be underestimated.  

Remember that your ultimate allegiance is to the company, but companies are built on their people.  We all have highs and lows in life, good times and bad.  When an employee feels supported by their employer, they perform better, they collaborate better and they feel better. The difficult period will end and you don’t want to lose an excellent employee for the sake of a little investment during the turbulent times.  Provide calm, clarity, and compassion and navigate the storm alongside them and you will create a content and loyal employee for years to come.
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