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Should employers introduce ‘divorce leave’?

There are many significant life events – the good, the bad and the ugly.  But have you thought how, as an employer, you could play a part in supporting employees through some of them?

Many organisations go beyond the legal requirement of offering maternity, paternity, adoption and parental leave. Some offer days off in the form of compassionate leave to deal with bereavement, family illness or house moves, for example.  Some even offer time off for birthdays or weddings.

‘Divorce or separation leave’ is something more and more HR teams are considering.  With an estimated divorce rate in the UK of 42%, employers are increasingly recognising this as a significant life event during which employees may require some additional support. This is good news for the Positive Parenting Alliance (PPA), which has for some time been promoting the view that families need support during such a challenging life event.

Some big employers are now leading the way.  Asda, Tesco, NatWest, Metro Bank, Unilever, PwC and Vodafone are among the household names changing their HR policies to offer support to their employees. This support could include:

  • Directing employees to the flexible working policy if they need to change their working arrangements because of a separation.
  • Referrals to occupational health or counselling services.
  • Additional leave to deal with the emotional turmoil and practical or legal issues that a break-up involves.

Separation or divorce is often a very distressing time for everyone involved.  It’s a time of huge change, affecting living arrangements, finances, as well as mental and physical health.  This can all take a grave toll on an employee’s well-being – something which could adversely impact their performance and productivity at work. So, an employer that supports a divorcing employee isn’t just helping take care of that person at that time in their life; they’re potentially helping keep them in their job.

Aside from the financial benefits, work can provide helpful routine and structure when personal life has been turned upside down. An employer that recognises this and provides a safe environment for the employee to talk about what’s going on at home can make a huge difference, not least to the employee’s mental health. And employers often find that the care and concern they show becomes repaid in long-term loyalty – a valuable commodity in today’s market.

But is divorce leave something every organisation should introduce?

Those against the idea cite many reasons, including the cost to the employer of finding cover for absent employees. If divorce leave is paid, as called for by the PPA, this cost could be significant. But if it’s unpaid leave, employees might not be able to afford to take it (divorce is expensive enough), in which case they might decide to take the time off under paid sick leave, if available.

There are lots of other questions to consider, too:

  • How much leave to offer and at what point in the separation or divorce process?
  • Who should it be offered to?
  • What level of separation is required for an individual to qualify and what ‘proof’ is needed?
  • If it’s to include separation as well as divorce, how serious does the relationship have to have been? Do they have to have been living together? If so, should there be a minimum period of cohabitation to qualify for the leave?

Many employers will feel uncomfortable with the idea of prying into employees’ personal lives to find out more information, and they’re right to be cautious – there are employment law risks to consider. Without further guidance on divorce leave, the basis for offering it (or not) is in each employer’s hands. They may exercise discretion on a case-by-case basis, but this shouldn’t be taken lightly; as employment solicitors, we are always cautious about the use of discretion as it can so often lay itself open to the allegation of discrimination.

But, for now, there is no compulsory right to divorce leave; employees can’t expect to have it and employers aren’t required to offer it. This could change, as the PPA is planning to launch a campaign in parliament calling for employers to offer additional support to employees going through separations. I asked my colleague and Head of our Family Law team, Kate Rayner, for her thoughts on the way momentum seems to be building:

The more support – of the right type – the better. That’s my overriding view, having advised many hundreds of people and families that have gone through divorce. Everyone knows that separation and divorce are challenging processes. Trying to ‘carry on as normal’ in a job when your personal life is falling apart is almost impossible, and a supportive employer and supportive colleagues can certainly take some of the strain.

Most divorces take a long time to work through and finalise, and the pressures rise and fall at various points. I’d encourage anyone going through this, or about to embark on it, to talk to their employer. In some ways, the people you work with are on the journey too. And if they can ease some of the burdens along the way, the outcome is likely to be better for everyone.

From experience, my view is that support from an employer when the world you know is falling around you is a gift. But like all gifts, this needs to be carefully thought through.

If you need help drafting any of your family friendly policies, please contact Antonia Brewer on 020 7377 2829 or email [email protected].