Britain is a marital disaster zone. In some hotspots, one in every two marriages fail. The personal costs of separation are well-known, but what about the professional toll? How does break-up affect your present career and your future at work? Should your employer help? Stephen Cook reports from the front line
A glance in Who's Who at the entries for the bosses of Britain's top 20 companies should gladden the hearts of church leaders and the moralistic commentators of the day. One is unmarried and 16 are on their first marriage.
Only three have been divorced - media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, who recently took a third wife; Vodafone boss Chris Gent, twice married; and banker Matt Barrett of Barclays, who divorced his first wife of 30 years to marry Anne-Marie Sten, a model whose career famously involved wearing a fur bikini or a lot less. Now they have split and it has been reported that not even a Maserati and a diamond 'as big as a throat lozenge' could bring Anne-Marie back.
The divorce-free record of the rest suggests there may be some connection between high achievement in business and a home life free of marital ructions.
Overall, this 15% divorce rate - at a time when 40% of marriages are dissolved - stands as a beacon in a murky world.
There is, however, no clear long-term link between divorce and work performance.
Nor is there any reliable yardstick on whether divorce enhances or encumbers your career. Or your salary. And while no-one disputes that marriage breakdown is almost always painful and disruptive, it also seems that tales of careers destroyed by divorce are often offset by stories where divorce was seen as a catalyst of success.
In London, the British divorce rate really gets serious. If you aren't heading for the courts, chances are the person sitting next to you is - it's a 50-50 shot. That means divorce is coming into the office, like it or not. And it is bringing all its unpleasant baggage with it - long faces, absenteeism, harassing telephone calls from irate spouses. It may even involve others, as office relationships are often a factor in divorces.
Should your company take steps to deal with the impact of these personal disasters? Should it formulate a policy or, indeed, should it get involved at all?
One of the problems for companies concerned about the welfare of their staff is that very little research has been done about the effect of divorce on work. However, a recent study by Professor John MacLeod of Abertay University in Dundee, conducted in tandem with the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, indicated that counselling reduces stress-related absence from work by between 25% and 50%. Emotional and personal problems have been shown to be the second-highest cause of employee absenteeism - and experts say that such problems are bound to include divorce and marital discord. Other research in the US in 1995 estimated that the loss of work as a result of marital stress cost the economy nearly dollars 7 billion a year.
Yet, despite this toll on the workplace, conversations with leading business and human resources organisations reveal a deep uncertainty about employers getting involved in such a ticklish and personal matter as divorce.
Henry Brookman, principal of a London firm of family lawyers, says divorce puts people's working lives under tremendous strain, especially if they have high-pressure jobs. 'Such people need to be able to give full emotional commitment to their work, and it's difficult to maintain that during something so overwhelming and chaotic as divorce. An employer will usually get the feeling that there's something wrong and will be sympathetic. But as the person's general efficiency drops, and they get more anxious, the employer gets tired of it and says: 'It's time you sorted this out.'
'But it often takes longer to sort out than the work situation permits - somewhere between three months and a year, although my women clients seem to be quicker.'
Brookman says that if the matter stops at the first line of management, that's difficult - because the line manager's main interest within a couple of months will be in keeping up work performance. He suggests that human resources departments, however, would be better able to say: 'Here's how to go about it. Here's a list of people who can help.'
This is the line being taken by some of the UK's bigger employers. The personnel functions of BT, for example, are now run by an outside company called e-peopleserve, which provides a helpline that staff can ring, without their manager's knowledge, to get advice and help on any problem, including divorce.
'That's the beauty and strength of it,' says Fiona Carr of e-peopleserve. 'Sometimes people don't want their employer or line manager to know what it is that they are having trouble with. The whole philosophy is that BT wants to ensure that people don't have difficulty getting expert help and advice.' In the past year the employee assistance helpline had 4,500 contacts from the 180,000 staff of BT and another company that uses e-peopleserve.
GlaxoSmithKline has an employee assistance programme that is run on similar lines. 'It's for all sorts of things, not just marital problems,' says a spokesman. 'For example, if your child is caught sniffing glue or something, you could use the programme.'
But policies like this are hardly the norm. Barclays Bank says people in difficulty should go to their line managers, who know them best, and to human resources only as a last resort.
Richard Wilson, business policy executive at the Institute of Directors, says job performance is bound to be affected by divorce and that employers should consider offering time off, especially for court appearances and childcare. 'Some will bury themselves in work, but others will externalise their unhappiness at work - and that brings others down and has a negative impact on morale,' he says. 'Bigger employers might offer counselling, but it is not beyond the wit of the employee to arrange that independently.'
Such tentative approaches are endorsed by Mike Emmott, adviser on employee relations at Europe's biggest human resources organisation, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. 'Divorce is something managers do not wish to intrude on. Many people resist being pressed to say why it was they had a long face. But if a divorce was leading to poor work or absence, a good manager might make an opportunity to find out - and more organisations now provide helpline support. It's in their interests.'
It can be even worse if you're self-employed and lacking the informal support network of your work colleagues. One freelance media consultant remembers his sense of isolation well. 'I'd have given anything for a quiet word of encouragement at the water-cooler. My wife left and took our son with her, leaving me strung out and rattling around in a four-bedroom house on my own. I'd get to my desk in the morning, smoke seven cigarettes on the trot and after two hours I'd realise I'd achieved nothing.'
It isn't easy to be upfront with your customers when you're at such a low ebb. 'My clients knew I had problems but there was no way I could tell them the full nightmare,' he says. 'At night I'd lay awake worrying that my career would collapse and I'd have to pay the maintenance by driving a minicab. I'm not kidding. Within nine months I'd run up 20 grand on legal fees and I was on Prozac.'
Such stories prompt a ready response from one of Britain's foremost experts on divorce and its consequences, Professor Janet Walker of the Centre for Family Studies at Newcastle University. In general, she says, employers should do more to provide advice and information for employees with marital problems. 'People tend not to mention personal problems at work, because of a fear of being penalised, or of missing the next promotion. But those personal problems can be the cause of time off and of underperformance. And employers need to be more aware that staff have lives outside work, which can be difficult and stressful.'
Her views are supported by Julia Cole, a counsellor for couples and a psychosexual therapist, who believes employers should offer more practical support through personnel and human resources departments. 'I suspect that smaller employers find it harder to cope with staff involved in divorces, because making allowances and giving time off could endanger their business,' she says. 'Larger firms may have more leeway to offer something helpful.'
A report in this country last year by the Family Matters Institute, a Christian group, estimated that marital problems accounted for 10% of work absence, costing the British economy nearly pounds 1 billion. Divorcing people are likely to work at reduced levels of efficiency, the institute said; it suggested that employers wanting to reduce stress and absenteeism among staff could offer them training in how to make relationships between couples work better.
Even so, the conventional wisdom seems to be that employers should steer clear of the troubled waters of divorce among staff - which makes it more important for divorcing people to seek support elsewhere. Family and friends - who are often workplace colleagues - usually play a vital part but may not be able to provide the detached perspective that is often necessary for recovery.
Let's look at one personal example: a man came home from a business trip one morning to find most of the household furniture gone and an announcement from his wife that their marriage was over. This bolt from the blue was followed by a prolonged and expensive legal struggle over his contact with their son, and by the near- collapse of his building company.
'It blew my world apart and I hardly worked at all for the rest of that year,' he says. 'I just couldn't concentrate - and I've never been a good sleeper. For the first few months, I drank to drown my sorrows and complained to friends until they got bored with it.
'I'd been working all hours to build up the business, create a future for the family. Now my heart wasn't in it. The company made big losses for a couple of years and the staff were despondent. It was only in the third year that I knuckled down and got the company going again.'
His experience is not necessarily typical. Some people find that the end of a marriage prompts them to work harder, as they deal with the trauma and compensate for the almost inevitable drop in living standards. Others might flip from one extreme to another. But everyone who splits from a partner seems to find their physical and mental health disrupted so badly that their work is affected. Depression, alcohol problems and dramatic weight loss are common. A few cases end in suicide. Divorcees consult doctors 35% more often than others and have higher rates of premature death from cancer, heart disease and accidents.
But for others a divorce is a catalyst for a re-assessment of their lives and values; they may change careers as a result. An electronics engineer, for example, left a pounds 40,000 job to become a part-time TV sound man, so that he would have plenty of time to spend with his daughter. A stockbroker packed it in to become a writer; and a television scriptwriter gave that up to campaign for the group Families Need Fathers.
Men and women may need help at different stages. One study showed women to be more upset immediately after parting, finding it a struggle to work.
Men, by contrast, managed well at first, but six or nine months later the situation was reversed - the women seemed over it and the men were struggling.
'People who handle divorce well reflect on their personal responsibility for what has happened,' says Cole. 'If you go through it saying 'It's all my partner's fault and I'm blameless', then the chances of having other happy relationships are reduced.
'You need at least a year to allow what's happened to sink in and to give yourself time to grieve for what has been lost - the potential, the shared future, the shared hopes. This is a tough thing to go through. If relationships go wrong, you often see people saying 'Thank goodness I've dumped him. Now I'm going to have a new life, lose weight, get a new job'. But it's rarely so simple when you split from someone you once loved, because you often still have some loving feelings towards them.
'It's often thought that divorce is like picking up a dry twig and snapping it. But I compare it to breaking a stick of celery - it doesn't break cleanly, and various strands are left hanging on. And that's what causes the pain.'
Divorce looks set to remain an inescapable fact of modern life in Britain, and the Government has acknowledged that coping with its consequences has become one of the biggest challenges to our society. Walker has urged ministers to reduce the couple conflict by introducing no-fault divorces and to adopt policies that make information and advice more accessible. She has suggested family advice centres in main shopping centres and other public places.
Meanwhile, some Americans have revived the idea of easing the pain of divorce with 'ceremonies of parting', where couples bring their friends together, hand back their rings, publicly forgive each other, and have a few drinks. The idea originates in several ancient cultures and is still found in orthodox Judaism and Islam. However, in both religions, the procedure falls down on grounds of equal opportunities - only men are allowed to initiate it.
THE PRICE OF TROUBLE AND STRIFE
UK divorce laws have conflict built into them, and financial settlements are little better than a lottery, many lawyers and marriage counsellors believe. They want the Government to bring in no-fault divorces and replace a tangle of case law with clear rules, but they fear the Blair administration will avoid alienating the family values lobby.
London solicitor Frances Hughes says it would be simple to introduce 'irreconcilable differences' as a ground for divorce. 'But any family law issue in this country is hotly debated, often in irrational terms.'
Conflict arises when couples who don't want to wait two years for an uncontested divorce have to charge one or the other with adultery or unreasonable behaviour - the most common ground for divorce. Psychosexual therapist Julia Cole says the phrase opens a can of worms. 'If you make allegations your partner disagrees with they will probably argue about it or make allegations in turn.'
Until last November, judges in England worked with a mountain of case law, their guiding principle being the 'reasonable needs' of the poorer spouse. This tilted matters in favour of rich men like Robert Dart, who in 1996 renounced US citizenship and filed for divorce in England rather than risk his polystyrene cups fortune back home, where divorce laws were more equitable. Katina Dart received only pounds 8.85 million of his pounds 900 million assets.
In last year's change, the House of Lords ruled that divorce settlements, especially in long marriages, should be judged by 'the yardstick of equality' - and the divorced wives of wealthy men began to get more. In May, for example, the Appeal Court ordered Michael Cowan, a bin-liner millionaire, to increase his settlement with his former wife Jacqueline from pounds 3.2 million to pounds 4.2 million. This gave her 39% of assets in the marriage. She got less than the 50% yardstick only because the judges said Cowan made a special contribution of inventiveness and business acumen.
Divorce moves megabucks in the UK economy - in legal fees, estate agents' commissions, furniture sales, singles holidays, dating agencies, health farms, cosmetic surgeons. Lawyers in big London firms charge as much as pounds 300 an hour plus VAT, and a High Court hearing can cost a couple pounds 100,000 each - although most people settle out of court and spend pounds 5,000 to pounds 10,000 each on lawyers. (With no lawyer, it's just pounds 210 for court fees.) London estate agent Savills estimates that 10% of house sales and 6% of purchases are the result of divorce. Only the rich come out of divorce with their standard of living intact. Most men are poorer: three years after divorce, half of them no longer see their children. Women often look after the children on less money.
The big money in divorce prompts exploitation. One firm has plans for a perfume called Divorce. In the US, there is a niche airline market for escorting children between parents living in different cities.
In London, law firm Brookman solicited clients with ads reading 'Ditch the bitch' and 'All men are bastards' - for which it was criticised by the Solicitors' Family Law Association.
Taxpayers pick up a big tab for welfare payments and the extra burden on housing, education and health, estimated by the Lord Chancellor's department at pounds 5 billion. Others put it higher.
IF THE WORST HAPPENS
1. Choose your lawyer carefully. Look for someone who clicks with you; someone who listens, who isn't overpowering, but responsive and efficient and gives clear advice.
2. Don't use your lawyer as a therapist. The lawyer has to hear the story, but it's easy when you're upset to spend a long time on the phone running up high costs.
3. Don't wait till things get really terrible before you talk to a lawyer about divorce: the more desperate you are, the more difficult and expensive it can be. And you need to give the other party time to come to terms with it.
4. Don't listen to bar-room advice: no-one else's experience is just like yours. And don't be tempted to hide things or get rid of assets - judges don't like that.
5. Think carefully during the marriage about whether you want to put assets, especially business assets, into joint names: once you've done it, it can't be undone.
6. And remember, there are plenty of people in unhappy marriages who feel their careers have got going only after divorce.
FRANCES HUGHES, HEAD OF FAMILY LAW SPECIALISTS HUGHES FOWLER CARRUTHERS.