Auckland divorce coach Bridgette Jackson says relationship break-ups are costing employers tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the size of the business, and that more should be done to support distressed employees.
She points to research that shows the high cost to employers when staff are going through lengthy and potentially high-conflict divorces or separations.
New Zealand research into the cost to Kiwi businesses is scant but US and UK studies point to billions of dollars lost in reduced productivity, poor decision-making, absenteeism and stress-related illnesses. One study indicated it can take up to five years for productivity to recover to the same level as before the relationship break-up.
Jackson would like to see corporates and business owners put support systems in place to help employees going through a divorce or relationship break-up. At best they are likely to be distracted and underperforming. At worst they will be grappling with emotions including anger, grief, anxiety, fear and depression. They are likely to need time off for appointments with lawyers, court appearances and counselling, she says.
"You cannot function. Your head is not in the game in terms of work. There needs to be recognition from all employers that is happening. Some employers are really supportive. Others have no idea."
Jackson speaks from experience. Her high-conflict relationship property settlement took five years and cost her $500,000 in fees. At the time of separation, Jackson was chief executive of the New Zealand Gynaecological Cancer Foundation and later worked for Organic Initiative (OI), which sells organic sanitary products. Looking back she says she couldn't have carried on working without OI's support and understanding.
Halfway through Jackson's divorce process her eldest daughter, Milli, then 13, contracted a virus that damaged her heart, resulting in an urgent need for a heart transplant. After a donor heart became available, Jackson spent six months virtually living at Starship, employing an au pair to look after her other three children on alternate weeks. The senior OI staff came into Starship for meetings and told Jackson to just do what she could manage.
"They were wonderful, very understanding. I was certainly not working at full capacity. It was an incredibly difficult time."
Even without her daughter's health crisis, going through a protracted property settlement was highly stressful, she says.
"You feel like you've got this black cloud that is constantly hanging over you, and never goes away. You're having to write affidavits, there are lawyers' letters [going] backwards and forwards. It's like a job," she says.
"It's incredibly difficult to concentrate. People are having to take huge amounts of time off and other staff members are having to pick up the slack. You're at work but you're not at work. Your life is in complete disarray. It's like a tornado has hit you and it doesn't end."
About 35 per cent of her clients are men and they face the same issues, Jackson says.
"They're very broken, often involved with someone with a personality type that is high conflict."
Coping with the range of emotions means the mental and emotional toll is enormous, she says. Employers need to recognise that many employees will need access to counselling and support services.
"You cannot go through divorce without it affecting everything else in your life, whether it's amicable or high conflict."
She'd like to see support included in the Employee Assistance Programme and is in the process of setting up resources for corporates and businesses to help employers assist their staff as part of Equal Exes, a business she set up more than two years ago after finally settling her divorce in 2019.
Breaking up is hard to do
Coming out of a gruelling five-year legal battle, Jackson thought there had to be a better way. As a divorce coach, she aims to help those either contemplating separation or going through it, to get to the end as quickly and amicably as possible.
She describes herself as an entrepreneur, a qualified lawyer and trained mediator with a post-graduate qualification in dispute resolution. She takes a holistic approach, focusing on four areas - legal issues, finances, parenting and wellbeing.
By all accounts, business is booming in the divorce industry. Jackson's workload has tripled since she started just over two years ago and she says many of the divorce lawyers she works with are so busy they've closed their books. To cope with the increased demand, Jackson is looking for people she can train as divorce coaches to cover other parts of New Zealand.
"I need to get the right people on board with the right values, empathy. This is not a job for the faint-hearted. You are dealing with high conflict and people are stressed the whole time. You need to be able to manage your own emotions in relation to that."
• Tomorrow: Sex, lies and betrayal - the heartache when it all goes wrong