CHRO SA's Nick Smith on why HR is always the third party in a divorce


He explains what companies can do to better help employees through this painful life experience.

Going through a divorce is undoubtedly one of the most stressful, distracting, and emotionally straining events a person can experience. To say it puts you in a state of mind that isn’t conducive for producing great work is a massive understatement, and a business can suffer if the right steps aren’t taken to help ease the transition for the employee concerned.  

Permanent separation from a loved one can have severely detrimental effects. The splitting of assets, coming up with the lawyers’ fees, the feelings of rejection and hurt, the process of relocating from the house you have long called home, and the stress and worry of how all of this will impact the children, are all things that are sure to impact a divorcee’s productivity.  

So how can one be expected to switch off from this for nine hours of a day to give 100 percent of themselves in the workplace? Should they be expected to compartmentalise and how can bad decision-making be minimised?

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In the days after receiving my “marching orders”, I was a wreck. All I wanted to do was sleep, but couldn’t. I wanted to drink, and I did. I wanted to cry, and I did. The very last thing on my mind was doing my job, and being in the sales profession, this clearly was not a good space for either myself, my clients needing my services or my employer. 

It is estimated that employee productivity is reduced by 40 percent and disrupted co-workers’ productivity is reduced by 4 percent during the six months prior and the 12 months following the divorce. Apart from reduced productivity, additional negative impacts such as stress, absenteeism, bad decision making and distractions, can ensue in the workplace.

With the ever-increasing divorce statistics in South Africa, organisations should be careful of the impact this aspect of employees’ private lives can have on their culture and, ultimately, the bottom line.

But where do you draw the line between HR being empathetic and HR being complacent? Because, on the one hand, people are not machines and HR should be sensitive to trials and tribulations that can impact their wellness and productivity. Conversely, it is HR’s responsibility to ensure that underperforming employees are not left unchecked. It's a tough one.

HR, therefore, needs to proactively provide the necessary support to get their employee back to their best. 

There are a number of things that HR should keep in mind in this regard. Namely, does HR have a moral obligation and corporate responsibility to assist? And if so, how so? I believe that they should investigate ways of helping their employees. 

Employee assistance programs (EAPs) are one way to mitigate the productivity issues arising from a divorce. Providing platforms such as external counsellors or industry phycologists at no expense has proven to be a great benefit in many organisations where employees have access to specialised family planners or general psychologists who provide a safe and anonymous space for employees to vent and seek advice.

While these interventions will come at a cost to the organisation, the value that will be gained in improved staff outlook and productivity will be immeasurable, never mind the fact that helping your staff when they’re at their lowest is, quite simply, the right thing to do. 

This article was originally published in CHRO Magazine, available in airport lounges around South Africa now.

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