Coping with Divorce

By Linda Wasmer Andrews May 1, 2005
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HR Magazine, May 2005Help maintain your employees workplace productivity during a personal crisis.

When Amanda Albertelli was hired for her job at HomeBanc Mortgage Corp. in Atlanta, she was married. By the time she showed up for work a few weeks later, she was separated; six months after that, she was divorced.

Throughout those months, she was not only adapting to her new role as a single mother, but also learning the ropes at the company’s fledgling nonprofit arm, the HomeBanc Foundation. No one would have been the least surprised if she had buckled under the pressure.

Instead, Albertelli thrived.

Her first performance evaluation was “one of the best reviews of my life,” she says. In the two years since, she has organized a number of highly successful fund-raisers, helping grow the foundation’s funds from less than $20,000 to more than $500,000. While she credits her own hard work, she also values the unwavering support of her manager and the company’s chief people officer.

For example, when Albertelli needed time off for court dates or to sign documents, she got it—without drawing down her personal or vacation time. When she began to feel overburdened and underconfident, she received one-on-one counseling from her company’s corporate chaplain and a life/career coach. And when she was ready to buy a new home, she turned to the mortgage company’s associate loan program.

Says Albertelli: “The support here has just been amazing every step of the way.” Without that support, it’s easy to imagine Albertelli’s story having a very different outcome—personally and professionally.

Situations like Albertelli’s are far from uncommon. Despite a slight recent dip, the national divorce rate remains high overall—and especially high for workers in certain jobs and regions. And employers are realizing that helping employees through this difficult, potentially distracting, and all-too-common situation pays valuable dividends both for workers and for the company.

A Mile in Their Shoes

On a classic rating scale of stressful life events, divorce consistently ranks No. 2—second only to the death of a spouse. Going through a divorce is a costly, time-consuming and emotionally draining experience.

“The process of getting divorced is an emotional roller coaster, and that impacts people’s ability to be mindful on the job,” says Bev Smallwood, a workplace psychologist from Hattiesburg, Miss. “When people are distracted, they make more mistakes and work more slowly. If they’re feeling depressed, their creativity will be down. If they’re feeling angry, they may project some of that anger onto co-workers or even customers.”

Meanwhile, practical demands can cut into work time. Employees getting divorced face a seemingly endless stream of legal, financial, housing and child care decisions. Vast amounts of time and energy are often consumed by finding a lawyer, revising the household budget, looking for an apartment, making new child care arrangements—and the list goes on.

As time passes, the financial pressures often mount as well. The cost of divorce varies widely, from hundreds to hundreds of thousands of dollars. But a typical divorce can easily cost as much as $20,000, says Gayle Rosenwald Smith, a family law attorney in Philadelphia and author of Divorce and Money: Everything You Need to Know (Perigee, 2004).

As a result, some employees struggle to cope with a drastic drop in their standard of living. Women are more likely than men to face this problem.

The strain can be compounded by a contentious court battle or custody dispute. “When you’ve been married to someone, you know all the buttons to push,” Smith says. “And when you get a divorce, you’re pushing those buttons as hard as you can.”

Problems and stresses won’t be resolved overnight, either. The divorce process can take anywhere from a few months to several years.

It’s a trying situation—one that some of your employees likely will confront at some point. Although the national divorce rate has dropped slightly from an all-time high in the 1980s, it’s still more than twice the 1960 rate.

“For the average couple marrying in recent years, the lifetime probability of divorce or separation remains nearly 50 percent,” says Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University. “It’s reasonable to assume that the rate will remain at that high level for at least another decade.”

Yet the actual likelihood of divorce for members of a given subpopulation—say, the employees at your company—can vary substantially from the national average, based on several key demographic indicators. Your workforce is more likely to have a higher-than-average divorce rate if it includes a number of employees who:

  • Earn less than $25,000 annually.
  • Don’t have a college degree.
  • Live in disadvantaged neighborhoods.
  • Have no religious affiliation.
  • Live in the South, Midwest or West.

Single-Minded Concerns

If your employees fall into these high-risk categories, it makes sense to plan ahead. However, even if you work for a high-tech company in an affluent, Catholic community in New England, you still may need to be concerned: While the number of divorcing employees at your company is likely to be small, those workers going through the emotional ordeal may feel an even sharper sense of social isolation.

In fact, loneliness and loss of social identity as a husband or wife are among the most painful parts of divorce for many people. This pain is only intensified by other changes in their network of family and friends. People may find themselves suddenly spending less time with their children or severing ties to in-laws. In addition, friends of a divorcing couple may feel they must choose which spouse to remain friends with, or they may exclude the newly single person from their circle of established couples.

It’s no wonder that some people who are going through a divorce turn to co-workers to pick up the social slack. Unfortunately, “if they go to work and talk nonstop about their divorce, they may end up impacting both their productivity and the productivity of others,” says Nancy Terry, a clinical care manager in the Research Triangle Park, N.C., call center of

valueOptions, a national employee assistance program (EAP) and managed behavioral health care organization.

Add to loneliness the hurt, sadness, worry, anger and resentment that divorce is apt to arouse, and you’ve got a recipe for deep distress. If not addressed, such feelings may contribute to unhealthy behaviors, such as abusing alcohol or other drugs, smoking, or overeating. Researchers have found that divorce also increases an employee’s risk of anxiety, depression and even suicide attempts. While the human toll is obvious, there can also be a bottom-line impact from lost output, increased absenteeism and increased health care costs.

Individualized Support

Different employees will respond differently to divorce. Some move on with their lives relatively quickly. But the likelihood of severe or long-lasting stress is high, so it’s wise to remind all divorcing employees about the support services your company provides.

“As a matter of course, you might suggest that they consider the EAP as an option for themselves and their family,” says Brent LoCaste-Wilken, manager of the in-house EAP at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston. “People tend to forget about the EAP, so they’re out there trying to do everything on their own.”

If your company provides other relevant work/life, legal or child care benefits, now is the time to mention those options as well. You might also assemble a list of pertinent community resources, such as support groups and sources for legal referrals. In addition, you might compile a checklist of frequently required paperwork changes along with basic instructions on how to make the changes or where to go for further help. If you put together this kind of packet in advance, you’ll have it on hand when you need it.

The preparation often is invaluable because the cumulative effect of making so many changes at once can be significant. Among other things, many divorcing employees may need to change their:

  • Name.
  • Address and phone number.
  • Health plan information.
  • Dependents for tax purposes.
  • Beneficiary for life insurance.
  • Bank account for direct deposit.

Of course, HR may not always know right away if an employee is recently separated or in the early stages of seeking a divorce. To remain helpful in such situations, “also put some information online so that people can download it privately if they wish,” says Sharon Mangieri, director of employee relations and training at Western New England College in Springfield, Mass.

Another important way HR can help is by arranging for extra flexibility in a person’s work schedule.

Guy Smith says he routinely worked 50- to 60-hour weeks for years as a software developer at Analytical Graphics Inc. (AGI), a fast-growing scientific software company in Exton, Pa. When his marriage began falling apart, however, the company was quick to let him cut back his work hours. “Too many companies make you feel like a cog in the machine, and when the gear gets a little stripped, you just pull it out and put a new one in,” Smith says.

But Smith says he never felt like a replaceable part at AGI, which last year was named one of the 50 Best Small & Medium Companies to Work for in America. (For more information on AGI and other companies named to the list, see the July 2004 issue of HR Magazine.) Now that Smith is a single father with shared custody, the company continues to provide flextime, as well as a playroom at the office where his children sometimes hang out after school.

For many employees, such as Smith, scheduling adjustments may be the key to staying productive during a divorce. Occasionally, though, such adjustments may not be enough. “People still have responsibility for doing their work,” says Steven Uhrik, an HR consultant from Villa Park, Ill. “When people become unable to do their job, some type of leave may be appropriate. Just keeping them on the job when they can’t function isn’t doing anybody any good.”

Sensitive Issues

As a compassionate person, your first impulse may be to provide a shoulder for employees to cry on. “Certainly, you can show sensitivity and genuine concern,” Uhrik says. But you’re helping neither the company nor the employee if you try to take on the role of therapist or best friend.

“When people come to you with their divorce problems, you’ve got to set limits on how long you’re going to listen and how far you’re going to get into it.” Letting an employee vent about how going through a divorce is affecting their work is fine. Venting about what a jerk the ex is and how he or she is taking the employee to the cleaners may be crossing the line.

Says Uhrik, “I know of one situation where the husband and wife both worked for the same employer, and the HR professional brought the two of them in to do something like marriage counseling. Obviously, that’s way over the top.”

This is where a referral to an EAP or work/life program can be invaluable. It gives employees a chance to express their concerns in an appropriate setting, and it allows HR to avoid the trap of over-involvement. Many employee assistance programs provide legal assistance in addition to psychological counseling.

Beyond that, ask employees what they need. Some people may feel overwhelmed if asked to take on a very challenging assignment or make a big job change when they’re also trying to cope with challenges and changes at home. Others, however, might welcome the opportunity to throw themselves into their work.

Be sure to also inquire about employees’ privacy preferences. “Some people don’t want to talk with HR about the divorce unless it’s absolutely necessary,” Smallwood says. “But there are others who are the opposite. If you don’t ask regularly how it’s going and whether they need anything else, they’ll feel like nobody cares. And that will ultimately impact their loyalty to the company.”

From the Ex Files

To see just how effective a good EAP or work/life program can be, look no further than Nancy Burke, a project manager at SAS, a large software company based in Cary, N.C. When Burke and her husband separated three years ago, her daughter was just 11 months old. Since then, Burke has taken advantage of several corporate benefits that helped her through the difficult transition from married to single life.

At first, Burke and her husband used the mental health benefit to pay for marriage counseling. When it became clear that reconciliation wasn’t a viable option, she began attending an on-site divorce support group run by a social worker who manages the company’s EAP and work/life program. Although she also attended some community meetings of Parents Without Partners, Burke felt she had more in common with her co-workers. “I definitely got to be good friends with a number of people in the group,” she says. In fact, she found the camaraderie so helpful that now she’s helping to launch a similar group at SAS for single parents.

Laura Kellison Wallace, the social worker who runs the divorce support group, says it’s just one piece of a comprehensive strategy to help employees deal with divorce. For employees such as Burke who work near corporate headquarters, there are also educational seminars and consultations on everything from handling legal aspects of divorce to financial planning for singles to helping children cope. For employees at remote locations, there are webcast seminars and phone support options. In addition, all employees can access the company’s extensive work/life lending library as well as articles about separation and divorce that appear in the EAP newsletter or on the work/life page of the company’s web site.

It’s a big investment in the emotional health and welfare of divorcing employees, to be sure. But Burke thinks the company is amply repaid. “SAS absolutely has my loyalty,” she says. “I’m very on board for whatever the company needs, because they’ve treated me so well. I’m not going anywhere!”

Linda Wasmer Andrews is a freelance writer based in Albuquerque, N.M., who has specialized in mental health and wellness topics for two decades. Her latest book is Stress Control for Peace of Mind (Sterling, 2005).
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