Relationship breakdown and the workplace

16 Jul 2019
"Desk set up with laptop notepad and coffee

When an employee's performance suddenly deteriorates, the reasons are as likely to be personal as professional.   Illness, substance abuse, financial issues or domestic pressures can all have a serious impact.   One of the most common reasons is relationship breakdown.  But although most employers have established procedures for dealing with employees with medical conditions, very few have policies on dealing with other personal issues affecting employees' work.  Employers are often wary of getting involved in employees' personal lives – but when an employee's personal life is in crisis, the right support from an employer can avoid a nosedive in performance and cement the employee's loyalty to the business.

So what does that support look like in practice? 

When a relationship breaks down, it's often the practical issues which loom largest – sorting out housing, finances, arrangements for any children (and even pets) can be hugely time-consuming and may well need to be done in office hours – e.g. if the employee needs to claim benefits or apply for council housing.  Although there is no legal obligation to offer time off to make these arrangements, it may well be sensible to grant the employee unpaid leave– doing so at an early stage may enable these issues to be sorted out at an early stage and so avoid more disruption in the future. 

In the longer-term, the employee may want to agree a change to their working hours in order to meet childcare commitments.  This should be dealt with in the usual way under the flexible working procedure, but the employer should be alive to the potential discrimination issues which might arise.   For example, fathers requesting flexible working for childcare should be treated no differently from mothers making similar requests. 

In some cases, an employee may need more time off to deal with any legal proceedings.  While there is no legal obligation to offer unpaid leave to accommodate this, employers should take a flexible approach where possible, to minimise the stress for the employee (particularly where the employee will need to use their existing annual leave to look after children in school holidays).   Employers can also provide invaluable help by directing them to reputable sources of information about the legal processes or the Citizen's Advice Bureau.  Employers shouldn't underestimate how much positive impact they can have simply by directing the employee to sources of information and support – the employee may have no idea where to turn.

Businesses should take practical steps to mitigate any impact

Many employers are wary of getting involved in their employees' emotional lives – but relationship breakdown is a very common trigger for mental health problems, which are in turn one of the most common reasons for long-term sickness absence.  So there is a lot to be said for providing effective support which could help to avoid those problems. Of course, employers can't force staff to disclose any details, but managers can be trained to spot warning signs that an employee might be struggling with personal issues, encourage the employee to be open and direct them to appropriate sources of support, such as an employee helpline or counselling services.

Although relationship breakdowns inevitably involve emotional and practical upheaval, businesses which take these modest practical steps may be able to mitigate the impact – and have happier, more productive staff as a result. 


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