Breaking up is hard to do

EAPs offer a variety of options to help employees cope during divorce
By Judith Plotkin
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 08/16/2011

In Canada, about four in 10 first marriages will end in divorce. That rate is even higher in the United States where 44 per cent of first marriages wind up in divorce court, according to a 2009 report by the Vanier Family Institute.

Living through divorce is among the most traumatic events a person can experience. Some have described it as being as devastating as the death of a loved one — divorce can turn a person’s world upside down. For some, divorce means the end of a bad situation and is cause for relief; for others, the loneliness and anger of this transition can be overwhelming.

Divorce involving children is further complicated with feelings of guilt, loss and regret that are often shared by each family member. The repercussions extend wider when kids are involved — children of divorce can have a lower psychological well-being, increased depressive symptoms and a greater likelihood of becoming divorced themselves, according to the 1998 study “Effects of Divorce on Mental Health Through the Life Course” in American Sociological Review.

Recent studies have also linked marital and relationship breakdown with an increased likelihood of serious physical and emotional difficulties:

•Divorced or separated men are 3.3 times more likely to experience depression than men who remained with their spouses, according to Statistics Canada. The odds of depression after a breakup are about 2.4 times higher in women.

•Depression and other mental health issues in the workplace cost the Canadian economy $33 billion annually, according to a 2009 report by the Mood Disorder Society of Canada.

•Stress associated with marital struggle increases the likelihood of a heart attack or other heart trouble in both males and females, according to a 2008 report from University College London. Cardiovascular disease costs in the U.S., including health care and lost productivity, were estimated to be more than US$503 billion in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

•Marital distress is associated with anxiety and mood and substance use disordersand according to a 2007 study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

As the numbers suggest, the impact of relationship breakdown and divorce in the workplace is enormous. Breakups are estimated to cost North American organizations more than US$6 billion annually in reduced productivity, absenteeism and presenteeism, increased health insurance premiums and stress-related health-care costs, according to a September 2009 article in Corporate Wellness magazine.

Help is all around

It’s important for people to draw upon available resources to help them make informed decisions for themselves and their family during this period of upheaval. The value of good friends, a supportive family and personal faith can’t be overstated.

Neither can having access to an employee assistance program (EAP) to help them navigate through the complexities of the situation. At Homewood Human Solutions, marital counselling made up about 22 per cent of counselling cases during the last three years and, of these, 37 per cent were for individuals addressing divorce as a primary issue.

Employers that provide full-spectrum EAPs afford employees a range of resources to help mitigate the negative impact of relationship breakdown. They also enable employees to remain engaged in their jobs and perform at the level to which they are accustomed. A stressed, depressed and anxious employee may come to work but he will not work at his optimal level.

Most people know EAPs provide short-term counselling, including couples counselling, to help overcome a wide range of issues associated with divorce. Many also know legal and financial counselling services are available to help them better understand their new realities when faced with relationship breakdown. But an EAP offers many other options to help these individuals.

“It’s not just the last drive-thru stop on the way to the lawyer,” says Naome Howe, an Oakville, Ont.-based relationship therapist and corporate coach. “(EAPs) offer tailored counselling with specialized clinicians to couples exploring whether their relationship can be saved and to individuals who have made the decision to end a relationship. It also provides support for those who have ended their relationship and are suddenly faced with big decisions around what comes next for them and their family.”

Solution-focused EAP counselling helps individuals develop realistic transition and life goals starting in the first session.

“The issues that keep people awake at night are different for everybody,” says Howe. “For some, it’s, ‘How am I going to get through this?’ For others, it’s, ‘How am I going to be able to pay the bills?’ or ‘How am I going to get my kids into daycare now that our living arrangements have changed?’”

One of the great advantages of an EAP is users don’t have to know exactly what they are looking for when they make that first call. Trained intake professionals are available 24 hours a day to help callers identify offerings that best address their needs, beginning with an initial risk assessment to determine if immediate crisis counselling is required.

Managers can play an important role by ensuring staff know about the EAP, especially when managers become aware an employee is experiencing a relationship breakdown or other life event.

During the initial call, an EAP user can:

•make an appointment for counselling

•connect with a professional to help them develop a financial plan

•learn about e-courses to help them manage their anger

•access resources to help them communicate better with their children

•get legal guidance and explore child-care resources

•counselling options available to kids who are struggling to come to terms with their parents’ divorce.

EAPs offer employees a wide variety of options that are timely and proactive.

High divorce rates are a reality and there’s no quick fix that will allow people to avoid the significant lifestyle and emotional fallout of this major transition. An EAP gives couples and families access to counselling and resources that empower them to minimize the negative impacts of divorce on their personal and professional lives.

Judith Plotkin is vice-president of strategic growth at Homewood Human Solutions in Toronto, which specializes in the EAP industry. For more information, visit

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