Employee Productivity and Divorce

Americans strive mightily to leave their work at the office door, to not bring the problems, irritations and frustrations of their work environments home with them. The goal is simple: separate your work life from your home life. Have a lousy day? Don’t take it out on the kids. Got reamed out by your supervisor? Don’t get snarky with your wife to regain your imagined dominance. That promotion you were hoping for went to the new girl? You still have to make dinner for that ravenous family of yours.

While it’s fairly obvious how what happens at your workplace affects you when you get home, it is less evident to employers that what is going on in your personal life has just as big an effect on the business you work for. This is especially so when you are involved in one of the major documented psychological stressors, divorce. Second only to the death of a spouse, divorce (and marital separation, which sits just below it on the Holmes and Rahe scale[1]) has a profound influence on a person’s ability to function in home and work environments.

Here are some examples[2]:

The owner of a nationwide trucking company laments a sad fact. Every year his HR manager must rehire a new long-haul driver to cover a vacated position. Why did the last driver leave the company? A year on the road had taken its toll on the driver’s family life and led to his divorce – first from his wife, then from his employer.

 The CEO of a large Midwestern pharmaceutical sales group knows she can not maintain optimum productivity from employees in her distribution center and home office. The cause? Every time one of her employees divorces, she loses at least two years of real productivity. 

The principal of a large regional human resources consulting firm sees problems for organizations with employees going through divorce. She notes, “How can we expect people to be productive when they’re distracted? When you hire somebody, you’re hiring the whole person…and whenever a person is undergoing divorce, that affects their ability to focus and concentrate in their business.” (Potts, 1999)

According to the Bureau of the Census, 2003, there were 2.3 million marriages that year and approximately 1.2 million divorces. Those 1.2 million divorces cost taxpayers about $30 billion in federal and state expenditures.[3] In fact, “each divorce costs society about $25,000-$30,000 because of the increase in costs of supporting people with housing, food stamps, bankruptcies, problems with youth, and other related expenses.”[4]

According to Olson, thinking of employees as either ‘divorced’ or ‘married’ is not very helpful, because such statuses are “not static states of a person’s life.”[5] He prefers to categorize them as either ‘succeeding relationships’ (ones moving toward satisfaction) or ‘failing relationships’ (ones that end with divorce).

These failing relationships create an unprofitable workplace due to increased absenteeism (lawyer appointments and court dates), presenteeism (where the worker is present but distracted by his/her own problems), health problems, anxiety, stress, and the resultant increase in health insurance costs. It has been estimated that $6 billion is lost to businesses because of the lower productivity of employees with relationship problems.[6]

Dr. John Curtis, an organizational development specialist and former marriage counselor, estimates that an average divorcing employee (making $20/hour) costs a company over $8000.[7] These costs include not only the absences of the divorcing spouse and lost productivity while actually at work, but the loss of productivity by other employees when the divorcing employee seeks to share his/her woes with them, and the loss of productivity of the supervisor, who has to deal directly and indirectly with the divorcing employee’s performance.

Curtis has developed a worksheet that can estimate how much any company is losing as a result of an unhappily married and soon-to-be-single employee, attached as Appendix B. One copy of the instrument is shown filled out, while another is left blank.  To view the entire article and worksheets click this link  Employee Productivity and Divorce

Ray Patterson is a facilitative mediator specializing in family law and commercial mediations. He was formerly the associate director of the Saltman Center for Conflict Resolution at the William S. Boyd School of Law.

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