Divorce is a reality which affects many couples. 42% of marriages end in divorce. But some employers do not engage with it as an issue which is relevant to them, or, more often, simply have no idea what they can do to help.
At The Divorce Surgery we champion the need for separating couples to work together on divorce. But we want to go further, to break the stigma surrounding divorce and the way it is perceived in society. The support network around a couple is of huge importance in framing a positive approach to divorce, and employers can play an important, supporting role.
If you had a blank sheet of paper, it would be hard to devise a worse process for navigating the legal side of a separation than the adversarial system. It pits couples against each other, breeds mistrust and breaks down communication.
That is why the Family Courts are urging couples to stay away from Court, and treat it as a place of last resort, not a default starting point.
Because at the end of the day, all the lawyers go away, and a couple is left having to manage their relationship, as co-parents or simply as fellow human beings, with shared experiences and memories, not all of which are bad.
The toll Court proceedings take on the families involved is most graphically demonstrated by the impact on their mental health. A Harvard Study of divorcing men and women found that it takes twice as long to recover from a divorce than it does from a close bereavement (1 year for bereavement and 2 years for divorce).
Between a third and half of all adults going through divorce report levels of mental distress sufficient to diagnose clinical depression. Men are particularly at risk – the Samaritans have described a causal link between relationship breakdown and suicide, and research has found that the risk of suicide amongst divorced men is almost three times higher than married men.
This is all, sadly, unsurprising. Divorce, although commonplace, still attracts huge societal stigma – it is associated with stress, unhappiness and financial pressures. No one goes into a divorce thinking it is going to be easy to navigate (which in fact it can be, with the right support and advice). This fear of the process is compounded by an adversarial, expensive and lengthy legal system, drowning in jargon. And at the same time many couples are facing the fracturing of their support networks – losing ties to friends and extended family members.
This has a huge impact on the ability of those adults to function, not only at home but also at work.
And what about the impact on children of the family? Again the research is stark. In January 2019 Teresa Williams, Director of Strategy at Cafcass produced a report for the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory at the request of the President of the Family Division. The research found that 130,000 couples with dependent children separate each year in England and Wales. Of those, 50,000 end up in court proceedings about their children. So 38% of all separating couples end up in Court about their children. This came as a huge shock to the legal profession as a whole – anecdotally we had believed the figure to be 10%.
The report argued for a public health approach to the escalating numbers of children caught up in the Family Justice System, because of the damaging impact Court proceedings have on the children involved: “The court process itself risks escalating conflict to a point where it becomes harmful to children and there is a strong argument for diverting applications to alternative dispute resolution where there are no child protection or welfare concerns… In Cafcass’ experience, once cases reach courts disputes are often entrenched, and the opportunity to intervene is more limited. An application to court is in many cases part of a process of parents abdicating responsibility and starting to attribute blame.”
As a result the President of the Family Division has been urging the legal profession as a whole to find a better way for separating couples to resolve disagreements over the division of their finances or arrangements for their children other than the court process. A number of initiatives have followed, with Mr Justice Cobb recently publishing the second paper from the Private Law Working Group which calls for radical and systematic change of family law dispute resolution.
At The Divorce Surgery we support this wholeheartedly. We have pioneered our fixed fee One Couple One Lawyer process to enable separating couples to work together and efficiently from day one, getting the expertise they need to reach a fair deal but in a collaborative, cost efficient way. We set out lots of detail about our unique, award winning service in our blog ‘What is One Couple One Lawyer?’
A Resolution study found that only 10% of employees think their employers do enough to support them during family breakdown. The cost of divorce to the UK economy is £48 billion.
A You Gov poll was undertaken with 500 high earners (earning £100,000pa to multi million pound packages) and was recently reported in The Times. 69% of those interviewed admitted ‘significant’ problems in their relationships in their current or similar role. The quote from one employee sets out the crux of the issue: “I get the sense that most employers believe you should leave all home problems at home. Yet employers expect work to be able to intrude on your home life. This has to be a two way street.”
A study by the Nashville Business Journal highlighted the impact a divorce can have on productivity at work. It found that in the 6 months leading up to and in the year of divorce, the divorcing employee’s productivity is reduced by 40%. Productivity will suffer on some level for 7 years. And in the 6 months leading up to and in the year of divorce, the productivity of the divorcing employee’s co-workers is reduced by 4% across the board.
The reality is that for many years employers have wanted to offer more support to their employees on relationship breakdown, consistent with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. However, the last thing an employer wants is to become embroiled in an adversarial process, or risk exacerbating a power imbalance which already exists by offering help and support to one spouse and not the other.
But it is clear from the mental health studies, and employees’ own attitudes to how little support they are getting at work, that employers need to respond.
There are three key ways in which they can:
All employers should have one, setting out not only support available at work but also signposting employees to external sources of support. Separating couples crave information, and the earlier they are signposted to it, the better.
2. Incorporating relationship breakdown into existing Wellness Programmes
Many employers offer annual presentations to employees on various wellness initiatives. Alongside talks on self-care and managing stress there should be segments on how to approach divorce well, and how to co-parent well following a separation. Many employees will not discuss the challenges they are facing at home, but would really appreciate constructive presentations which form part of a wider programme of events (ensuring they don’t need to reveal their interest in the subject matter if they’d rather not).
3. Employee Benefits Schemes
Many employers are now attracted by the idea of getting their employees started on divorce in the best and most constructive way. Our One Couple One Lawyer service is particularly apt for these schemes because it is completely impartial as between the couple, has a short timescale and is fixed cost.
At The Divorce Surgery, we regularly support employers who want to put in place better support for their divorcing employees, either by advising on policies, going in and giving presentations or becoming part of existing benefits packages.
Our co-founders Harry and Samantha were asked to speak at the annual Health and Wellbeing Conference at the NEC in March. If you are an employer looking to explore these issues, please do not hesitate to contact us and we would be happy to talk through the options of what help we can provide.