Divorce Challenges Workers, Investors and Consumers

Divorces and pre-divorce antics are front page fodder for supermarket tabloids.  Indeed, for some celebrity couples, dissolving a marriage is a contrived publicity seeking junket.  Away from the paparazzi cameras, most of us facing divorce feel the almost physical pain of losing a longtime partner.  The supermarket tabloids sometimes get it right, namely that some occupations are more prone to workers going through divorce.  Divorce-prone occupations include dancer, choreographer, bartender, factory worker, masseuse, nurse, entertainer and sports professional.  Job characteristics that promote divorce include excessive travel (i.e. absence from the spouse), adoring fans and physical touching.

The pain of a breakup can depress us, undermine our ability to concentrate and cloud our judgement.  Our friends, immediate family and relatives and our work-group, are aware of the melancholy and inattention that replaces our usual keenness.  For our supervisor, divorce is a high cost distraction that calls for compassion and patience.

The impact of divorce is often spread out over many years.  A year of haggling through attorneys might be needed to address the split of assets, income and child custody.  That year of high anxiety might culminate in a divorce decree, but the family’s financial and emotional scars can take another 5 years or more to heal.  Meanwhile, the divorcing spouses bring their misery and diminished acuity wherever they go, including into the work group.  Supervisors will face frequent requests for unscheduled and inconvenient leave.

A business’ work routine can be upset by distracted and erratically absent co-workers.  Workers recruited to substitute for the absent worker may not exhibit the usual level of skill.  The effects of the divorce can ripple through the employer’s workplace due to ad hoc adjustments in work flow and assignments and distraction of the supervisor.  The result is damage to the group’s productivity, and diminished output and/or higher production cost.  In one estimate, productivity for the divorcing worker is expected to be down by 40%, disrupted coworker productivity is down 4%, and the group’s supervisor productivity is down by 2.5% in the six months prior and year following a divorce.  Another estimate places the productivity drop at 50% to 75% for the divorcing worker.

The role of a divorcing worker’s supervisor is complex.  The supervisor should listen but not give advice and not “problem solve” for the worker.  Supervisors who have gone through a divorce should not share their own personal experience.  The supervisor must show compassion and flexibility in task assignments to accommodate the needs of the team and the divorcing worker.  Amidst those logistical challenges, the supervisor must somehow support the morale of the entire work team.

About 50% of all marriages end in divorce, and 60% of all divorces involve individuals between 25 to 39 years old.  Those who have gone through a first divorce and then remarried are about 60% likely to go through a second divorce.  These demographics suggest that many workers in their prime employment years are struggling through some stage of divorce while trying to hold a job.  Relationship related stress costs employers about $300 billion per year, and divorce is the culmination of such stress.  Through diminished profitability, co-workers pay some of the cost to accommodate the stress of divorce, but ultimately most the $300 billion weighs on consumers and investors through higher output prices and lower net income.

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