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Divorce is widely considered to be one of the most stressful life events a person can go through. A huge emotional and physical upheaval, going through a separation can impact people in several ways and make it difficult for them to function in other areas of their lives.

Research by the Positive Parenting Alliance (PPA) in January surveyed 200 people and found that:

  • 90% said their performance at work was impacted while they went through a divorce
  • 95% said their mental health suffered at work
  • 74% of employees felt less efficient at work, and as a result
  • 52% felt concerned that they would lose their job, or had considered leaving voluntarily
  • 39% felt they had to take time off work as a result of their separation
  • 11% stopped working altogether

Despite such a clear detrimental effect on employees, the PPA found that only 9% of employers had specific policies in place to support their employees. With these findings, it’s perhaps no surprise the PPA has called for employers to consider introducing more family-friendly HR policies to support people going through divorce or a separation. To date, Asda, Tesco, Metro Bank, PwC, Unilever and Vodafone have all voiced support for this campaign, which has also received backing from MP Siobhan Bailie and Sir Andrew McFarlane.

New support initiatives

To better support employees going through a divorce or separation, the PPA has suggested the implementation of several new HR initiatives, for example:

  • Recognising separation as a ‘life event’ in HR policies
  • Ensuring parents going through separation can access flexible working arrangements
  • Giving employees access to emotional counselling during the period of separation
  • Signposting separation support services to give parents the best possible guidance

Though specific policies may be few and far between, to date, many businesses assess the needs of employees on a case-by-case basis, some more compassionately than others. On the new campaign, some have argued that although good news for employees, there could be significant administrative and financial burdens to navigating any new HR policies for employees going through a separation.

Four ways to offer support

So, until (and unless) any formal legislation is implemented to support employees going through a separation or divorce, what can employers do to offer help and create a supportive environment that doesn’t place additional burden on their people?

Start the conversation

The first step to offering support and indicating that your business is a safe space for employees is to ask the employee if they’re having difficulties. Often any dip or change in performance could be a symptom of a problem outside of work. They may not be ready to open up, or may wish to keep their private life separate, so it’s important not to push, and demonstrate an openness to help them if and when they’re ready.

Demonstrate patience

We’ve discussed some of the ways a separation can impact on an employee’s performance, but though it might be frustrating if an employee isn’t working to their usually standard, it’s important to exercise patience and not add any additional pressure to an already stressful situation. If performance issues continue to worsen and show no signs of improvement, a performance development programme may be beneficial, but it’s key to consider this option carefully.

Consider flexible working arrangements

Employees are already entitled to take up to four weeks of unpaid parental leave each year under the statutory schemes. During a separation it can be common for parents to need additional time to take care of childcare arrangements while the situation is evolving. Flexible working can be hugely beneficial to parents at this time, and though legally they are only allowed to make a request for flexible working once a year, it could be beneficial to be open to more frequent request while things are unsettled.

Understand the law

Employees experiencing a separation aren’t specifically protected within employment, but some of the broader effects of the separation are, for example- mental health. Declining mental health because of separation could lead to disability. There is also potential for sex discrimination if claims for working arrangements relating to childcare are refused without good reason.

Many employers are now considering new ways to promote employee well-being, and exploring how to offer supportive, family-friendly policies. With campaigns for support for divorcing parents, and recent discussions around supporting menopausal employees gaining some traction, employers should keep abreast of these issues and consider how their policies can best support their people.

Michael Jenkins, Head of Legal Advice, Arc Legal Group

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