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For richer, but not poorer

14 March 2012

For richer, but not poorer


With divorce rates on the increase for the first time in seven years, money worries and extra pressure at work are being blamed for family breakdown...

Government statistics reveal that UK couples spend an average of just two hours a day together, with the majority of that time spent on passive or routine activities such as household chores or watching television. Add to that the huge financial pressures now facing many couples and it’s hardly surprising that the divorce rate is increasing for the first time in seven years.


The bad news for employers is that few things are most distracting or distressing to an employee than the breakdown of their relationship or family unit. Left unsupported, someone concerned about their relationship, or going through the pain of a separation or divorce, will inevitably become progressively more distracted at work. They might even start to absent themselves from the workplace as arguing or feeling unable to cope at home takes its toll, manifesting itself as anxiety, depression or insomnia, and even physical illness. Not to mention find themselves at increased risk of indulging in maladaptive behaviours, such as alcohol or drug misuse, as a means of escaping their feelings about the situation.


Typically, telltale signs indicate that all is not well on the domestic front. These include Monday absences, as a result of tough weekends at home that leave employees unable to face going into work, and distinctive changes in workplace behaviour, such as increased forgetfulness, tearfulness, aggressive outbursts, reduced eye contact and an unwillingness to engage in even minimal social interaction with colleagues.


At the other extreme, individuals who don’t want to deal with their unhappy personal situation might well start creating or inventing reasons to work late into the night, far longer than is either healthy or necessary, simply to delay going home. Although a sudden burst of turbo-charged commitment might seem like a good thing, allowing people to burn themselves out, as a means of avoiding their partner, will create more problems than it solves for both the individuals concerned and the organisation.


The challenge for employers has for a long time been focused on how best to support employees affected by deeply personal issues that are clearly affecting them at work. The natural inclination for most of us is to say nothing, for fear of seeming intrusive, and hope the problem resolves itself. Yet, in reality, a gesture as simple as flexing someone’s hours so that they can meet the children from school and have dinner with their family one night a week can make a huge difference.


In general, it’s far better to offer support before the classic ‘fight or flight’ response, causing employees to behave aggressively with colleagues and customers or call in sick, kicks in.


At the very least, out-of-sorts employees should be taken to one side and asked how they are, in a caring, empathetic manner. The aim isn’t to counsel or admonish them, but to identify the root cause of the problem so that appropriate support options can be explored and provided. This might involve making reasonable changes to working arrangements or directing them towards appropriate professional help. In particular, Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) can give employees valuable, completely confidential advice on everything from dealing with financial problems (which may well have precipitated relationship problems) to role-playing better ways for them to communicate with a partner, or devising practical ways to spend more quality time together.


This last point – making and enjoying time with each other – is critical. Research reveals that it’s not the amount of time that couples spend together that matters; instead, it’s all about quality. That’s why increasing numbers of forward-looking employers are now proactively educating employees not just on reducing workplace stress and staying physically healthy, but also on nurturing their relationships, including staying vigilant for warning signs and the importance of identifying activities they can enjoy with their partner that facilitate good communication. A walk round the local park, trips to explore new shops or restaurants or embarking on joint DIY projects together represent a tiny fraction of the possibilities.


Simple as these measures sound, they can nonetheless be incredibly effective, and even transformational. They enable couples to re-connect – and connected couples are far better at talking about and resolving problems than those who have started to drift apart.


If you’re worried about how well your employees’ relationships are holding up, why not conduct an anonymous straw poll to see how many would be interested in attending a seminar or workshop on ways to strengthen their personal relationships, which you might be prepared to organise? You might just find you’ve identified the single biggest issue that most people want help to address – and if you, as their employer, can help them overcome those issues, everyone wins.