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Divorce and the unproductive employee

by Kathryn M. Grigg

Employees are not the only ones who suffer through a divorce. Employers also bear the cost of an employee’s divorce through absenteeism and reduced productivity. This article addresses some benefits and support programs you can provide at minimal cost to maintain a productive workforce.

Costs of divorce
The amount of time it takes to get divorced is usually a matter of state law. Many states require a waiting period ranging from one month to two years. In reality, most divorces take much longer–sometimes years–especially when children or complicated financial issues are involved. A few states even allow for covenant marriages, which permit couples to voluntarily make a divorce more difficult for themselves to obtain than in the typical no-fault divorce action.

One obvious side effect of divorce on an employer is the work time a worker will need to miss to attend court hearings and meetings with attorneys. The more contentious the divorce, the more court appearances may be required.

The less obvious costs that affect employee productivity include not completing tasks because of a lack of focus, using working hours to discuss divorce details with coworkers, leaving work early because of anxiety, avoiding work because of safety concerns in a domestic violence situation, or missing work altogether for lack of child care.

Furthermore, people going through a divorce or marital separation often experience symptoms of depression, including headaches, fatigue, insomnia, chronic pain, and digestive disorders. It has been estimated that depression costs nearly $50 billion in lost productivity every year. Depression reduces the ability to function, impairs judgment and overall job performance, interferes with employee interactions, and can lead to injuries, mistakes, and accidents. Additionally, the stress caused by divorce can make workers more susceptible to illness.

Small and medium-sized businesses are affected the most because their employees’ skills are usually unique and there may not be anyone else in the workplace who can readily take over a divorcing employee’s tasks. Nevertheless, even small businesses can offer solutions to assist workers during this difficult period in their lives.

Employee assistance programs
Employee assistance programs (EAPs) are one way you can help mitigate the issues arising from a divorce. In essence, your company prepays for counseling and other services to help workers and their families address personal problems that may adversely affect job performance, health, and well-being. Often, an employer contracts with a third party to manage the EAP. The third-party company employs a team of vendors, including counselors and therapists.

You can select how much you are willing to fund the EAP and the extent of its coverage. Workers may receive a certain number of sessions, assistance up to a certain dollar amount, or even unlimited sessions within a specified period of time. Historically, EAPs have addressed the impact of divorce primarily through mental health services. However, you should consider expanding the services offered through an EAP to address other aspects of a worker’s well-being.

Adding financial advisers to an EAP is a meaningful way to provide workers with the tools to get their financial situation in order and decrease stress. Contrary to popular opinion, no one is richer as the result of a divorce. Instead of supporting one household, the same amount of income must now support two households. Childcare costs typically increase as the result of a divorce because there is no longer a second adult living in the home. Additionally, legal fees in a divorce can exceed several thousand dollars. Offering workers access to a financial counselor may help mitigate the uncertainties of the divorce, resulting in more content workers.

The cost of absenteeism increases when employees must miss work to care for their children. The added stress of the divorce makes children more susceptible to getting sick, which also causes employees to miss work. Moreover, with no other adults living in the home, divorced parents often struggle to find, and afford, before- and after-school care. Some EAPs include a stipend for workers to use toward childcare services. Even a nominal amount of coverage can go a long way in alleviating a worker’s struggles.

Prepaid legal services plans are another way you can help maintain productivity. Although no one is required to hire an attorney when going through a divorce, navigating the legal system alone is tricky. A worker attempting to handle a divorce on his own will inevitably spend more time researching and addressing the issues than if he had hired an attorney to do it for him.

In addition to taking care of paperwork and appearing in court, divorce attorneys often negotiate many of the day-to-day issues between spouses that tend to drain employees’ time and energy. Prepaid legal programs put workers in touch with attorneys at discounted rates. The assistance of an attorney will not only reduce stress for the worker but will also afford him more time to concentrate on his work.

Mediation as an alternative
Mediation is a way to quickly resolve disputed issues in a divorce. Mediation is done through the court system using a court-appointed social worker, and the first mediation session is free. Unfortunately, there is no analogous court system for mediating the financial aspects of a divorce, which are often the ugliest and most complicated issues.

Couples who wish to mediate child support, spousal support, or property division must pay for a private mediator. The cost of private mediation can be prohibitive. Recognizing that a bitter, protracted divorce will be very costly in terms of employee productivity, some employers now offer workers a stipend to apply toward the cost of mediation.

Obligation to offer insurance
For a period of time after a divorce, you’re required to offer health insurance continuation and conversion benefits to an employee’s former spouse and dependents. COBRA, which is federal law, generally applies to group plans covering more than 20 employees, group plans sponsored by state and local governments, and self-funded health insurance plans. COBRA offers 36 months of coverage.

A former spouse would have to pay 102 percent of the normal premium to remain on a group policy. For an individual policy, the former spouse’s premium rate would be determined based on the rates applicable to the age and class of the risks for each person to be covered and the type and amount of coverage provided, with no contribution from the employer. Employers are required to provide written notification of those options directly to the former spouse following a divorce.

Bottom line
Consider offering or expanding an EAP to help workers effectively navigate a divorce. The quicker the worker can find peace at home, the more focused and productive she will be at the office.

Kathryn M. Grigg is an attorney with Axley Brynelson LLP in the firm’s Madison, Wisconsin, office. She may be contacted at