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Human resources should prepare for the impact of separation and divorce in the workplace

By Edit Farun, Charlotte Goldfried and Debbie Shawn


Ellen’s situation is not uncommon; marital separation, common-law relationship break-ups and divorce occur in approximately 50 per cent of all relationships. Consider these statistics:

  • Approximately 50 per cent of the population will divorce in their lifetime.
  • According to the 2011 census, five million Canadians separated or divorced in the past two decades.
  • Approximately 200,000 Ontario children experience the impact of this difficult transition.
  • Four in ten marriages in Canada will end by the 30th year of marriage according to the Vanier Institute of the Family.
  • Divorce is the second leading stressor among individuals, impacting job performance, mental and physical health.



My name is Ellen. I am a teacher and I have taught elementary school for over 30 years. People say I’m a good teacher, but at the moment that’s not true. My Grade 3 classroom is a disaster. I can’t focus on the kids. I think I’m yelling a lot. Sometimes I just want to cry. The other teachers have started to look at me funny, but no one has said anything yet. The teacher in the room next door has come in to my class a couple of times to see why things seem so noisy and out of control. Maybe the principal is just going to report me as incompetent. Why has no one asked if I’m okay?

Last month my husband of 31 years told me he doesn’t love me, and he’s been having an affair for two years and he’s leaving me. How will I survive? I may be a good teacher, but I don’t seem to know much about how to manage in life. How much money do we have? How will I pay bills – I don’t know anything anymore. I don’t even know what I don’t know. Michael has done it all for 31 years. I give him my paycheque and he pays the bills and handles it all. Michael has always said that I have to keep teaching as we need my pension for our future, but I think he makes a lot of money – I don’t really know. Will he take my pension – that happened to a friend of mine. Then what will I do?

I’m embarrassed and ashamed. Who can I ask? If I tell my principal I’m not coping, what will happen? I think there’s such a thing as taking a medical leave, but I don’t know if they will agree that I’m sick. Am I sick, or just not “accepting reality and getting on with life?” That’s what Michael says.



Given these facts, human resources should recognize that at any given point in time there will be employees within the organization who are experiencing a separation or who are fearful that their marriage is in trouble. While separation and divorce are considered personal issues, employers would do well to recognize that the impact of separation and divorce spills over into the world of work. Unlike situations such as bereavement or short- or long-term illness, HR, management and colleagues seldom know what to do when it comes to dealing with a marital separation or a common-law dissolution in the workplace. So the issue is often ignored, with the hope that it will pass without too much disruption at work. Simply put, this is a mistake.

Separation and divorce affect everyone differently. Many people experience depression and anxiety, abuse drugs or alcohol; others become physically ill. Moreover, employees who are dealing with divorce related issues are more likely to make mistakes. They struggle to stay on task and are easily distracted. There is often an increase in absenteeism and productivity is negatively impacted, all to the detriment of their employer.

Separating couples’ reactions to the situation are complex and are often dependent on their age and stage of life, the number of children involved and their economic circumstances. Their responses are often complicated by multi-layered emotions such as grief and shame. For some, life returns to a new norm in a few months, but for most the transition takes much longer. Of course, everything is amplified when the separation is acrimonious. These types of separations thrust the couple into a vicious cycle, in which hostility between the separating couple is a constant and they feel that the only way to resolve their issues is through litigation.

The litigation process of unravelling a marriage tends to be lengthy, hurtful and expensive. There are alternatives to litigation and part of the role of human resources specialists should involve gathering and preparing resources about various experts who a separating individual may want to turn to, including divorce mediators, collaborative lawyers, social workers trained to work with individuals experiencing this life event and divorce organizers. Divorce organizers help individuals to gather, organize and prepare all of the necessary financial paper work used to begin any separation process.

HR should be proactive in dealing with separation and divorce in the workplace. Even though HR may feel uncomfortable talking about it, and the employee may be embarrassed by it, it is unrealistic to ignore the reality of the situation, which is that separation and divorce inevitably affect a company’s bottom line. Most organizations have policies to deal with leaves for tending to a sick child or family member, short-term or long-term disability and bereavement. However, the matter of separation and divorce is largely avoided and/or ignored. After all, the topic makes people uncomfortable.
Yet, ignoring the situation costs the company money, as employees are most likely not functioning well at work. While receiving services from the company’s EAP firm may be a good first step, HR can be more proactive. They can develop a plan that helps to support employees who are dealing with this life event. For example:

A manager or someone from HR can meet with the employee to discuss a manageable workload, a temporary leave or flexible work hours.
HR can compile a checklist of frequently required paperwork changes or requirements, such as a change of address for credit cards and a driver’s license, along with basic instructions on how to complete the paperwork or where to go for help in this area.
HR can prepare a list of experts who the employee may want to reach out to.

Strategies such as these provide the employee with important information and the time to deal with court appearances and meetings with mediators, lawyers or financial advisors. Ultimately, employers benefit by recognizing that some of their employees will be dealing with separation and divorce. By having a plan in place, they will be able to support the employee while minimizing the impact of reduced output and an increased workload for other employees.

Whether it is separation and divorce following a marriage or the uncoupling of a common-law union, this change is emotionally, socially, legally and/or financially challenging for family members. However, current research shows that the impact on adults and children – including the speed and degree of adjustment – varies widely and is shaped by post-divorce circumstances, access to community programs and services, as well as the availability of information, resources and support during the transition. The workplace may well be the first place that recognizes the need to offer and provide assistance and resources to individuals experiencing this life event.

Edit Farun is an accredited mediator with the Ontario Association for Family Mediation and a qualified mediator with the Alternative Dispute Resolution Institute of Ontario. Charlotte Goldfried is a collaborative family law lawyer and founder of Goldfried Law. Debbie Shawn is a registered social worker and founder of Divorce Matters – Preparing for An Organized Divorce. Attend their presentation, “Separation and Divorce are Workplace Issues: Helping Organizations Reduce the Costs of Separation and Divorce in the Workplace,” on Jan. 31 at 3 p.m.




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