Mental healthBereavementBusinessWorkplaceBaby Loss

The cost of relationship breakdown and bereavement in the workplace

From my work as a former family lawyer, I saw a repeat pattern, in that so many of my clients who were high fliers could not function at work when they were going through a divorce or break-up and worrying about a divorce settlement and arrangements with their children.

Their focus was not on their work. Worry about what might happen and sleepless nights made them anxious and too tired to concentrate. A number of them told me their work was suffering – a deterioration in the quality of their work, an increase in errors and ineffective decision-making - and some felt they had no choice but to leave their employment. The emotional stresses and strains were overwhelming, and the issues they were facing all time consuming.

Similarly, I have found that people who have been bereaved also find they cannot function fully at work either, and struggle with their grief while trying to hold down a job. There is no timeline for grief and it is an emotional rollercoaster which is physically and psychologically exhausting.

Looking into this further, it became apparent that there is a huge knock-on effect of relationship break-down and bereavement in the workplace: affected performance and productivity at work, days off due to ill-health and stress and ultimately loss of excellent employees.

This is not surprising bearing in mind that the death of a close loved one and the breakdown of a relationship are regarded as the two most stressful life events that can happen to any of us. They also follow a similar trajectory, as grief is the death of something – a divorce or break-up is the death of a relationship and the death of a loved one a bereavement. In both scenarios the parties will need time and space to grieve and to work through the various stages of grief whether that be denial, anger, depression, guilt, regret, shame, before reaching acceptance. Factor in the loss of identity and change of status and you have a complete life change. All these ‘enforced’ changes are enormous. And their impact on personal wellbeing will unavoidably be reflected in the workplace.

Many people will hit an all-time low, have no energy, and feel depressed. The toll on them mentally and emotionally will be demanding, all at a time when they are having to make practical decisions and facing a multitude of demanding tasks including addressing legal matters which invariably have to be done during the working day. Many employees will need to take time off work to meet solicitors and attend court hearings. And the increase in stress will lead to many having to take sick leave.

Significantly the impact on businesses also extends to the performance of co-workers. Either in their efforts to be supportive and provide a listening ear or through the distractions of their colleagues’ emotional rollercoaster ride, co-workers performance also dips.

Support in the workplace is key.

Certainly, in the initial stages of a bereavement the level of understanding and support is generally far greater than for a divorce or break-up. This is on the basis that many businesses do have a bereavement policy in place to support those experiencing loss whereas there is unlikely to be a divorce or break-up policy. But given the huge impact any form of personal loss can have on an employee and on the business for whom that employee works - whether it is a relationship break down or a bereavement - it is clearly in the interests of all parties for there to be ‘wellbeing policies’ in place to ameliorate the impact on everyone concerned. The reality is that these are issues where employees are likely to need ongoing support and understanding while they work through the pain of their loss and legal processes which are often protracted and complicated and where they face an uncertain future.

I read a very interesting article recently about wellbeing in the workplace which set out a number of statistics in support of making change. And my comment was, yes, these are really useful statistics, but are these not things we already know and should be implementing anyway? And the response was, yes, but the decision makers need to see the stats.

For those of you who are already familiar with my work, you will know that I am passionate about wellbeing in the workplace and implementing policies to make everyone's life better. For someone like me who deals with the practical and emotional side of personal loss on a day-to-day basis in my coaching practice, the way I approach it is that if we deal with the practical and emotional aspect, then actually that has a huge ‘beneficial’ knock on effect in terms of the economic, financial and legal implications for both employees and employers and wellbeing generally. When staff feel valued and supported, they are more productive, staff morale is higher as is staff retention.

And yes, statistics definitely have their place. In my former life as a family lawyer my day was driven by facts, data and evidence. But we must not lose sight of the personal element. Personal loss is subjective and everyone’s situation is unique and the experience will be different. Which means needs will be different. And that is what we ought to be thinking about when we are implementing policies and supporting people who have suffered a personal loss.

As an accredited divorce and break-up master practitioner and certified grief educator my practice is working with and supporting people in these scenarios to make positive transformative change quickly.  In the context of the workplace, I offer a service to employers whereby if any of their employees fall into the categories described above, I can work with the HR wellbeing team to offer support through this very difficult time, thereby reducing time off work and the loss of valuable employees. Support includes coaching employees through the issues they are facing and.  through workshops offering practical and emotional guidance on personal loss.

Celia Conrad

Relationship Expert

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