When University of Minnesota professors Connie Wanberg and Michelle Duffy set out to study the effects of divorce on work, they knew people would describe the negative repercussions, from a lack of concentration to poorer job performance.
And they were right.
After chasing leads from divorce records, online forums and divorce attorneys, the researchers surveyed more than 500 people who were married or cohabiting, going through a divorce, or had divorced within five years. About 44% of divorcing individuals said the event was adversely affecting jobs.
What Wanberg and Duffy didn't expect was the volume of people who expressed a renewed sense of career motivation and opportunity for change. About 40% of people navigating divorce reported that the experience had a positive impact on their work.
"It made sense," said Wanberg, the study's lead author, who was initially surprised because she struggled to focus on work after her own divorce. "I just hadn't thought about it that way because it wasn't my experience."
Her team's findings were published recently in the scientific journal Personnel Psychology, bringing new light to a topic that is often only whispered about in the workplace. A key takeaway: Don't make assumptions about how divorce is psychologically affecting a colleague. The experience is anything but universal.
Silver linings reported by some divorcees included increased energy to spend on their careers or to pursue higher education. Parents who now shared custody of their kids now had more time. Others used work as an escape and a distraction from the stress of divorcing. Some even said the breakup liberated them from their spouses' expectations and allowed them to lean into their true selves.
And others, especially those who were in tumultuous marriages, finally felt free.
One woman recounted that her ex regularly fell asleep intoxicated with a cigarette in hand, and she worried about him burning down the house. "It was constant stress," Wanberg said, "and the weight lifted when she got away from that situation."
Why they studied it
Years ago, Wanberg and Duffy, who work in the Carlson School of Management's work and organizations department, were both coming to terms with the end of their marriages. They texted each other for support and found solace knowing that there was someone who was experiencing similar anxieties and stress that often went unspoken on the job.
"It does feel a bit isolating," Duffy said. "It strikes me there's still a stigma for divorce. And even beyond that, I think there is still a desire for many people to keep it private. A lot of people don't say what they need."
While reams of research have been published on the effects of divorce on mental health or on children, there was "a hole in the literature" on how the event spilled into the workplace, Wanberg said.
More than 40% of first marriages in the United States end in divorce. Psychologists rank it as stressful or nearly as stressful as experiencing the death of a spouse. Wanberg and Duffy, who conducted the research with Borbala Csillag (now at Oregon State University), found that many divorcees reported feeling hopelessness, exhaustion, irritability or loss of temper at work. Some recounted going to the restroom to cry.
It's understandable why people would see a change in their work temperament or productivity. Divorcing individuals are losing a lifelong companion, shared belongings, financial assets and time spent with children. They also must manage daily stressors — the need to collect financial information, meet with lawyers, share the news with friends and family — not to mention moving into a new place or learning how to live independently. Many of these tasks need to be conducted on work time and may leave a person emotionally depleted.
How to help
But the good news is that most people do improve over time.
A second component to Wanberg and Duffy's research involved surveying 200 workers going through divorce. They found that work engagement, job performance and even their health got better a year after their divorce.
Another surprise in the research: Divorced parents reported fewer negative work outcomes than those who did not have kids.
"You had less grief when you had children. Maybe that's because you still had that constancy in your life or something else to focus on. We don't really know why," Duffy said. "My guess is you can't fall apart — you have to be there for them."
With the personal toll of divorce often so pronounced, how can managers help? Don't underestimate the power of work flexibility. Study participants said they appreciated understanding managers who allowed them the time to take their kids to school, for example.
Make no assumptions about who is ready for a big challenge, such as an overseas assignment, because people process the stress of divorce differently. "You don't know," Wanberg said. "This experience is too diverse."
If you're a colleague of someone freshly divorced, you might consider offering to take some work off their plate in the short term.
And if you are the one getting divorced? Make sure to take time to heal. Try to eat right, sleep right. Guard your energy.
"You might be thinking, 'This is not the right time, or I am not worthy of this,' " Duffy said. "But if work is your focus, you're able to get back to that work faster when you're taking care of yourself. I think it's good for employers to know that, too. Give people a little grace."