Supporting staff following a relationship breakdown

Need to know:

  • A relationship breakdown can be traumatic, adversely affecting an employee’s mental health and performance.
  • A wide range of support tools are available including employee assistance programmes (EAPs), concierge services, legal advice and flexible working.
  • Making separation a life event can make it easier for employees to make changes to benefits as well as helping to raise awareness of support.

Going through a separation can be incredibly challenging. Alongside the emotional turmoil, many people need to make major changes to their lives including finding a new home, taking on new childcare responsibilities and adjusting to their new financial situation.

Supporting employees through this difficult time is important. More than 90% of respondents to a survey published by the Positive Parenting Alliance (PPA) in January 2023, said their relationship breakdown affected their performance at work, with 39% having to take time off and a further 12% stopping work altogether. James Hayhurst, founder of PPA, says: “Organisations should do more to support employees going through separation. Only 9% of respondents say their employers have specific policies or support for separation or divorce but, where someone feels supported at work, they’re much less likely to leave. It can create the right conditions for a couple to separate well.”

Emotional crisis

Even when a separation is straightforward and relatively amicable, it is good to provide access to emotional support. The PPA survey found that 95% of respondents saw their mental health at work suffer during their separation.

This is not surprising as a relationship breakdown can stir up a wide variety of emotions. Karl Bennett, chair of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association UK (EAPA), explains: “It’s common for someone going through a separation to experience some of the different stages of an emotional crisis. After the initial shock, they might feel fear as a result of all the uncertainty, anger, sadness and even grief as they come to terms with the end of the relationship.”

Emotional support and counselling can help an employee process this range of emotions and build coping strategies. This can be accessed through different products including employee assistance programmes (EAP), private medical insurance and health cash plans. Support is also available through charities such as Mind and Relate.

Practical issues

Alongside the emotional upheaval, there are likely to be all sorts of practical issues that need to be addressed. These might include information around the divorce, changes to childcare, finding a new home and financial advice.

An EAP is a good starting point. “An EAP will serve as a valuable information service,” says Bennett. “Being able to access reliable information on everything from divorce law and how a separation affects [their] pension to sourcing childcare can take some of the pressure off an employee.”

This could also be complemented with an employee network, depending on the size of the organisation. Being able to chat through what is happening with someone who has been through the same experience can be helpful.

Standalone services are also available to help employees navigate the logistic nightmare of a separation. A concierge service can be particularly useful when employees are dealing with the demands of major life events, including divorce and separation.

Katie Lynch, founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of concierge service Apiary Consulting, says: “We look at what needs to be done, how, when and what we can do to support the employee. We all have family law backgrounds so we started out guiding people through the legal side of major life events such as divorce or bereavement but it soon become apparent that more than 90% of what we did involved helping with all the other time-consuming things people had to deal with when these events happen.”

As well as picking up anything from translating legal documents into plain English to finding suitable properties for an employee, concierge services can also serve as information services. “We have a digital platform that employees can access with useful tools and resources to guide them through difficult life events,” adds Lynch. “A divorce can be very technical and complicated and something that most people will never have had to deal with before.”

Legal advice

As well as offering concierge services and EAPs to help employees through a divorce or separation, employers can also make legal advice available. An employer might want to fund a session with a lawyer or fund mediation, subject to a cap, says Harry Gates, founder of The Divorce Surgery. “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,” he explains.

Although an organisation can help an employer with the cost of their own legal advice, a joint meeting, where the couple meet with a lawyer, may be worth considering, says Gates. “The introduction of the no-fault divorce changed the mood music around divorce,” he explains. “As a couple can do it jointly, it can make the process much less adversarial, delivering a better long-term outcome for both parties and their families.”

Employer action

Recognising the upheaval separation can cause, and the practical support an employee might need, can also help them through this difficult time. Gates recommends having a separation policy outlining the support the organisation can provide. “This can set out expectations around time off, childcare arrangements and detail the support that’s available,” he explains. “Having a policy helps to create a culture where employees feel able to bring their personal issues into the workplace.”

Offering flexible working and time off is another major plus during a separation. Whether it is having to pick up the school run, an appointment with a solicitor or a court appearance, employees will appreciate the flexibility.

Making sure that all the support is promoted is also essential. Line managers have a key role to play too. Debra Clark, head of specialist consulting at Towergate Health and Protection, says: “Where a line manager knows what support is available, they can signpost employees to it.”

Switching benefits

The end of a relationship can also be a trigger for changes to an employee’s benefits. “An employee will probably want to remove their ex-partner from any benefits such as [private] medical insurance and the [health] cash plan and where they are nominated as a beneficiary on the pension or life insurance,” explains Clark.

A separation may also prompt a more fundamental change in the benefits they have. They may want to take out additional life cover, perhaps if they previously had it through a joint policy or they want to make provision for their children. Similarly, they may wish to arrange additional support for childcare if they take on primary responsibility for the children.

Recognising separation as a life event can make these changes easier too. As well as raising awareness that the organisation takes it seriously, it allows employees to make changes to their benefits rather than wait for the next election window.

Ready-made pledge

Employers looking to show their support to employees going through separation can also sign up to the Positive Parenting Association’s HR Initiative, which was launched in January 2023. “We want to change the culture of separation in the UK and employers can play a critical first step in ensuring separation is handled in a more positive way,” says Hayhurst.

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It requires organisations to implement family-friendly policies including recognising separation as a life event; providing access to flexible-working arrangements; offering access to emotional counselling; and signposting separation support services.

Seven large organisations signed up to the initiative at launch including Tesco, Unilever and Metro Bank. While this signals their intent to look after employees going through separation, it also creates momentum for this type of employee support to be adopted more widely.