Between a third and a half of adults experiencing divorce and separation report levels of mental distress high enough to warrant further attention by their GP, according to a groundbreaking new study.
This is the conclusion of research carried out by the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) which compared levels of wellbeing before, during and post-separation. Such was the impact on mental health, the ISER discovered one in five men is at risk of depression at the onset of divorce and separation. This compared with one in eight women.
Entitled Partnership dissolution: how does it affect income and well-being, the research was based on longitudinal data from the British Household Panel Study.
Overall, the ISER says it takes up to two years for mental health to return to pre-separation levels. This reinforces previous academic studies but the degree to which employees are impacted at the time of divorce and separation was little understood.
The ISER findings will be of particular interest to Human Resources (HR) professionals and Employment Assistance Programme providers, responsible for the wellbeing of employees already performing at near full capacity in pressurised working environments. Recent surveys reinforce the ISER findings and make for sobering reading.
In September 2014, life and pensions company Friends Life surveyed 2000 adults to find “Relationships” was the third highest main cause of stress in the lives of respondents after work and money. And in late November, family justice organisation Resolution surveyed 4000 adults and found that 9% of employees either had to leave their jobs as a result of divorce or separation from a cohabiting relationship or knew a colleague who had done so. Prior to these findings being published, Secretary of State Iain Duncan Smith called upon employers to be better at identifying people struggling with ‘family break up’ so they do not end up leaving work.
Moreover, the incidence of family breakdown might be news to major employers. Census data from 2011 tells us that 50% of the adult population is married and 5% are cohabiting. This means over half a major employer’s workforce will be living with a partner. The Office for National Statistics says at least 42% of these relationships will fail with breakdown clustered around employees in their early 40s with dependent children.
Beyond the workplace, relationship breakdown is a truly societal issue with up to 250,000 parents separating each year. Conflict among separating families is hardly confined to the margins: in both 2012/13 and 2013/14 over 100,000 parents appeared at court to contest child arrangements. Since the withdrawal of legal aid from lawyers for most family disputes, more parents now appear at court without a lawyer than with one.
Given the frequency and profound impact on mental health, HR staples of signposting to family mediation or brokering discounted legal fees, may not be sufficient to manage workplace risk.
In mid-2014, research published by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) revealed less than 1% of couples divorcing or separating between 1996 and 2011 went directly to family mediation. There were only around 800 mediations a year in 2000 – a full 20-years after family mediation first arrived in the UK. This comes at a huge opportunity cost to achieving speedy resolution – and accelerating the recovery of wellbeing levels – since family mediation is relatively quick and extremely successful once underway. Almost 80% of separating couples that began mediation in 2013/14 went on to reach agreement.
Evidence about family mediation gathered from longitudinal and randomised control trials – the gold standard in research – has also shown that contact with the non-resident parent (usually fathers) was higher among those that attended mediation than those who went to court. These studies suggest that the mediation process can promote parental co-operation, educate parents about their emotions and encourage parents to develop effective and appropriate boundaries around an ongoing co-parenting relationship.
But as the ESRC research makes clear, family mediation in its unsupported form (that is to say without advising lawyers fronting up and supporting the process) fails to meet the perceived needs of separating partners in conflict. A family mediator is only able to encourage dialogue, build trust and achieve consensus because he or she remains neutral and does not impart advice. While integral for disrupting the underlying causes of conflict, this does not speak to the impulse amongst separating partners to have “someone in their corner” to constrain the behaviour of the other party.
This someone usually comes in the guise of a divorce solicitor who isn’t – shall we say – predisposed to sharing each new client with a mediator. Individual solicitors tend to monetise individual clients rather than individual couples. Such behaviour has both constrained the growth of family mediation and fostered huge reticence around accessing legal advice dispensed at north of £200 per hour plus Vat.
By way of example, YouGov’s 2014 Family Law Divorce Survey showed clients paid a widespread range of fees from less than £500 to over £20,000. In fact, the same percentage of respondents paid up to £1499, £2999, £3999 and over £10,000. Such was the degree of price uncertainty that almost 60% of those surveyed said their costs were higher than expected.
It is perhaps not surprising therefore that the ESRC research discovered almost half (47%) of divorcing and separating couples did not seek legal advice about their situation between 1996 and 2011. While it is true many separating couples part on amicable terms, tens of thousands of separating partners run the risk of being mired in conflict as a result of power imbalance and lack of advice.
As Robert E. Emery – the professor of psychology who led the randomised trials mentioned above – recently noted in the New York Times: “Your emotional impulse in divorce is to hurt back, because you hurt so badly. Our legal system should work against that impulse, not encourage it. That, truly, is in the best interest of the child”.
Combined with the profoundly negative impacts upon mental heath, those outside family law services might well consider it perverse that solicitors and mediators have continually failed to align and develop services built around informed dialogue and early stage resolution.
Until this sorry trend is reversed, impacted employees will remain little more than one-time shoppers making a distressed purchase when it comes to family law services. And that’s if they turn to the hired help at all. Either way – as the new findings lay bare – this poses significant risk to both employee and employer alike.
*Marc Lopatin is a trained family mediator and director of social enterprise Advantage Resolution which developed Lawyer-Supported Mediation. The approach will be made available to a community of major employers and trade unions from April 2015 on a pilot basis. For more information, please contact Advantage Resolution at firstname.lastname@example.org