The Divorce-Work Balancing Act: Best Strategies for the Workplace



Becky was juggling 8-year old twins and a position as a junior partner at a large accounting firm. She’d already been separated from her spouse for 9 months but their divorce was dragging on. It came to a head when she needed to finish a report, pick up her sick child from the school nurse, and leave early for a meeting with her divorce attorney, all on about 4 hours of sleep. If something didn’t give soon, she felt like she was going to break from the pressure.


You know divorce is draining on you personally. But what about the impact it has at work?


Research shows that marriage strain and divorce costs corporate America around $2 billion annually. Think about this:


-Divorce is the #2 biggest life stressor (just after death of a spouse).


-In just the 18 months surrounding a divorce, an employee loses 40% productivity! That comes from being distracted, missing work to deal with the divorce, arriving late or leaving early due to childcare issues. Plus, divorce stress increases our risk of illness - from little things like colds to big things like heart attacks.


-An employee’s divorce impacts their supervisor and co-workers because their productivity also suffers.


-Divorce is linked with greater rates of depression, domestic violence, alcohol and substance abuse. All of that can lead to more missed work, illness, and mistakes on the job.


Doesn’t paint a very rosy picture, does it? The good news is, now that you’re aware of it, you can take action. Here are a few ways to help reduce the negative impact divorce has in the workplace, whether you’re the one going through it or know someone who is.

If you’re the one going through divorce:


Let your direct supervisor know what’s going on. Your supervisor needs to know that your marital situation is changing, and that you might need time off from work for things related to your divorce case (like meetings with your lawyer, mediation, and court). But be careful just how much detail you share. This is still work and, even if you’re friendly with your boss, you still should maintain your professionalism.


Ask for flexibility where you need it, like temporarily reducing or flexing your hours. If you do need time away, like to meet with your lawyer or go to court, be prepared to make up that time by working over-time or at odd hours (e.g. after the kids go to bed). Be proactive. It’s better that you ask for a schedule that works for you during this time than try to keep up with something that doesn’t work for you.


Take advantage of the employer-provided benefits available to help you during this time. Some of the most popular ones are an employee assistance program, subsidized childcare, and pre-paid legal. But you may also have access to a growing body of wellness tools that can serve you through divorce, like sleep programs, meditation apps, and virtual counseling.


Dealing with divorce while trying to maintain a job isn’t easy, but it is possible. If you’re returning to the office for the first time since the pandemic, there are specific things you can do. The same goes for ways to deal with the work/co-parenting balance.

If someone you know at work is going through divorce:


Whether you’re a boss or a co-worker, it’s a good idea to know the common signs of someone going through divorce. While everyone is different, pay attention for things like unexplained absence, an employee arriving late or leaving early, distractedness, and changes in personality.


Let’s say you notice one of your direct reports has lost a lot weight lately, but you didn’t know they were on a diet. They’re also rushing out of work early a couple of times a week and seem withdrawn. You want to express concern, but also respect their privacy. What can you do? Here are 4 ways to offer support and help to boost performance:


1. Acknowledge the situation. You might start by just stating the facts: I’ve noticed a few things seem to be different lately. I haven’t seen you eat anything for lunch all week. You’ve been leaving early a lot, which is unusual for you. And you’ve been a lot less talkative than normal. I don’t want to pry, but if something is going on at home, it might help if I know about it.


2. Offer flexibility. Let your employee know the ways you might be able to offer a little flexibility in hours. Ask what schedule they think would work best for them right now. It might be that they have their kids every other week, and would like to load up on work hours on the weeks they don’t. Or work later on Tuesday so they can scoot out early to pick them up for Wednesday dinner. Maybe they really need to work a reduced schedule for the next 3 - 6 months so they can try to settle their divorce case. It’s a long game. Offering some flexibility now could mean retaining an employee you value and hopefully one who returns to work full-time in a few months.


3. Modify roles. Divorce is incredibly demanding emotionally and physically. For some employees, changing their schedule might not be enough; they might need more of a role reduction or change. If you’re at a small company, this might not be an option. But if it is doable, it might be worth it to you to keep a valuable employee. Consider how much you want/need to keep this employee, and think creatively about ways to do that. A shift in roles could be really attractive to someone, even if it comes with a pay change.


4. Point out divorce-related wellness benefits. Divorce impacts almost every area of life, and to get through it well requires help: with the legal system, finances, childcare, mental health, and more. Employer benefits can be a great place to start, and are often provided for free or at a reduced rate to the employee. But as many HR folks will admit, many employees aren’t aware of all that their company offers. So don’t assume your employee knows all the great tools your company provides. She’s probably overloaded and swamped, so you can help by pointing her to the specific benefits your company offers. While you’re at it, ask your company to consider offering Forwardly, our own marriage repair and divorce wellness toolkit. Forwardly provides a one-of-a-kind roadmap to help employees live well as they navigate through this difficult life event.

The bottom line: It’s not easy to balance work and divorce, but it is possible with the right tools and support.