The Impact of Unhappy Marriages and Divorce on Business

June 5, 2007 | admin

The Impact of Unhappy Marriages and Divorce on Business


Many people know about how absenteeism negatively impacts a company.  Employees not showing up for work — in the physical sense –can create trouble for a business. However, “presenteeism” – that is, showing up for work physically but not being present mentally and emotionally – is becoming an even greater problem for corporations. Presenteeism can persist for days, weeks and beyond, impacting productivity and profits.

Lost productivity due to presenteeism is, on average, seven and a half times greater than that lost to absenteeism. The Harvard Business Review estimates that presenteeism costs American Business $150 billion annually in direct and indirect costs. (Dixon, “Weighing the Costs of Presenteeism” The Chief Executive, June 2005)
Presenteeism occurs when a conflict at home is unresolved, resulting in festering anxiety that intrudes on an employee’s “mental screen” throughout the day. This emotional flooding interferes with the brain’s working memory and executive function. The employee is distracted and preoccupied and loses ability to focus and concentrate fully on the task at hand. This lost productivity continues until the situation that plagues him or her is resolved.

When companies invest in the physical and relational wellness of their workers, returns on investment can range between $1.50 and $6.85 for every dollar spent on these types of programs.

These vignettes illustrate the interdependence and interplay of marriage, divorce, and business in today’s corporate culture:

The owner of a nationwide trucking company laments a sad fact. Every year his HR manager must rehire a new long-haul driver to cover a vacated position. Why did the last driver leave the company? A year on the road had taken its toll on the driver’s family life and led to his divorce – first from his wife, then from his employer.

The CEO of a large Midwestern pharmaceutical sales group knows she cannot maintain optimum productivity from employees in her distribution center and home office. The cause? Every time one of her employees divorces, she loses at least two years of real productivity.

The principal of a large regional human resources consulting firm sees problems for organizations with employees going through divorce. She notes, “How can we expect people to be productive when they’re distracted? When you hire somebody, you’re hiring the whole person … and whenever a person is undergoing divorce, that affects their ability to focus and concentrate in their business.” (Potts, 1999)

Each year about 1.2 million couples get divorced in the United States, costing taxpayers an estimated $30 billion in Federal and state expenditures (Schramm, 2006). Each divorce costs society about $25,000 to $30,000 because of the increase in costs of supporting people with housing, food stamps, bankruptcies, problems with youth and other related expenses.

Failing relationships cost companies money. One notable research project estimates that annually $6 billion is lost by American businesses due to decreased productivity stemming from marriage and relationship difficulties (Forthofer, Markman, Cox, Stanley & Kessler, 1996). These expenses are borne directly by corporations, owners and shareholders. 

Failing relationships can lead to affairs in the workplace, and up to 25 percent of these relationships lead to decreased productivity (Corporate Resource Council, 2002). Divorce can disrupt the productivity of an individual worker for as long as three years (Lavy, 2002). One recent study found that in the year following divorce, employees lost an average of more than 160 hours of work time, equivalent to being fully absent four weeks in one calendar year (Mueller, 2005). This means that recently divorced employees are absent from work for relationship-related reasons for more than 8 percent of their annual work time.

Couples in failing relationships are more likely to resort to physical abuse or violence to resolve tensions at home (Gallagher, 2002), and subsequent domestic violence costs Corporate America up to 7.9 million paid workdays of lost productivity annually (Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence, 2006).

A 2006 study of one community also found a correlation between marital dissatisfaction and levels of diagnosable alcohol abuse disorders. In fact, unhappily married couples were almost four times more likely to have a partner abusing alcohol than happily married couples (Whisman, Uebelacker, & Bruce, 2006). Those with alcohol problems skip or miss work 30 percent more than those without (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2004).

Higher healthcare costs. The increased levels of stress, anxiety and depression resulting from failing relationships lead to lower levels of physical health and increased risk for substance abuse problems. These health issues cost companies in higher insurance premiums and healthcare expenditures (Gallagher, 2002).

Happily married employees are healthier. Couples in successful relationships experience a number of positive health benefits. Immune system functioning is improved for happily married couples (Waite & Gallagher 2000). For males, being happily married is the equivalent of being 18 months younger than chronological age; for women this effect is approximately six months younger (Waite & Gallagher 2000). Obviously, workers who are healthier and younger tend to have lower rates of health service utilization and fewer chronic health problems (i.e., stress and anxiety-related conditions), which can lead to reduced healthcare costs for employers. A recent study of intra-office productivity compared the most productive and least productive departments on a wide measure of coping skills. Despite equally high levels of work stress, the group with better coping skills from their couple and family relationships were found to be the most productive (Olson, 2006).

Prevention programs are a great investment. Federal and state governments spend only $1 to promote healthy marriages and relationships for every $1,000 they spend to deal with the effects of family disintegration (Fagan & Rector, 2000). Many studies have examined the return on investment attributed to employer-sponsored programs targeted at reducing stress and increasing workplace health. Estimates of $1.40 to $4.90 saved for every $1 spent were found in one analysis of nine companies ranging in size from 50 to 50,000 employees (Goetzl, Juday & Ozminkowski, 1999).

Other studies have attributed an ROI of up to $6.85 for every dollar invested in employee wellness programs (Tangri, 2003).

Guidelines for Direct Marriage Education

To deliver direct marriage education successfully within a company, we recommend following several very important guidelines:

  1. Get buy-in and sponsorship from the top. The troops watch Caesar for direction. If leaders are genuinely involved in terms of policy, participation and support, others will follow. The best corporate example of top-level support in this arena is Chick-fil-A. The owner-leaders of this company implement marriage-friendly policies and offer multiple programs (education sessions, marriage retreats) for all their employees and store operators.
  2. Build in protective couple boundaries and security. Employers and employees can be reluctant to mix their private and business lives, and rightly so. Job security for a person who is providing for his or her family is critical. If some marital tension is exposed in a marriage education seminar, participants may have fear (real or imagined) that their job security is threatened, or that their chances for advancement are jeopardized. If a hint of either occurs, employees will not participate in marriage education. Be sure couples are not put in situations in which they over-disclose or inadvertently disadvantage themselves.
  3. Focus on positive, proactive training: equipping, not repairing. Marriage education and skill building are not group therapy. Marriage counseling is an alternative resource. Be sure marriage education, as with other corporate programs, is offered as training and development to support and enhance workers resilience and productivity.

2These are the finding of a recently published report by Matthew D. Turvey, Psy. D. and David H. Olson, Ph.D. titled, “Marriage & Family Wellness: Corporate America’s Business?” published by the Marriage CoMission in conjunction with Life Innovations. The report is available at


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