Family Well-Being – An Employer’s Responsibility

How long will it be before employers become liable for the stress and depression caused, not to their employees, but to members of their employee’s family? When will employers be sued for causing the divorce or relationship breakdown of their employees?

Legally, an employer has a duty of care to their employees. That means they have to provide a healthy, safe environment to work in and – critically – to also look after the welfare of employees at work. Failure to provide a duty of care could lead to an action of negligence.

But how far do an employer’s responsibilities go? What are the boundaries of duty of care? Most interestingly, does a duty of care also involve having a duty to an employee’s family?

There is an argument to suggest that it does. If an employer is legally obliged to provide a duty of care to their employees then, logically, this may also extend to the rest of the employee’s family as having a supportive, collaborative, harmonious family is a part of the well-being of the employee.

If the nature of an employee’s work leads to discord in the family this may be considered as the employer’s responsibility and therefore liability.

Even though an employer may act diligently, ensuring that they do not act in any way that results in harm to its employees the demands it makes of those employees may be such as to cause damage to the employee’s relationships and family.

This damage can arise in a couple of ways:

  • Making excessive demands of employees – heavy workloads, long hours, ambitious deadlines, unreasonable expectations, weekend working, long commutes, relentless pressures.
  • The lack of any demarcation between home and work – this can be the result of home-working, being on call, emailing from home.

Generally, the thought is that work and home life should be kept separate. An employee should be able to step away from their work. There should be a work-life balance. Work shouldn’t be an all-encompassing part of their life. Yet, in practice, this can be difficult to achieve. Employees can struggle to switch off from work, which can dramatically impact on the home and the family.

The effects on employees and their family can be significant:

  • Relationship breakdowns.
  • Marital affairs.
  • The neglect of their children by not spending enough time with them.
  • Non-attendance at school meetings and events relating to their children.
  • Excessive alcohol and drug use or gambling addictions leading to financial, emotional and behavioural difficulties which will affect the family.
  • Limited leisure time and cancelled holidays.
  • Frequent job relocations – nationally and internationally – impacting on the family’s social activities and interactions, as well as the children’s schooling.

An employee may be prepared to endure these hardships. They may be driven by the thought and opportunity of enhanced career prospects. They see it as an investment in their future. They may perhaps also feel that they have to do if they want to progress. They have no choice. It’s a competitive environment. If they are not working all the hours then somebody else will be and that may mean those others getting preferential promotion treatment.

That does not mean to say that it is acceptable. Although employees may acquiesce to an employer’s working conditions or may have prioritised their career, it might not necessarily be something that their family is entirely in agreement with. An employee may also be so wrapped up in their work that they do not see the damage it is doing to their domestic life.

As a responsible employer it may in the future be necessary to take account of an employee’s wider family and the impact that their work has on it. Perhaps, not only will employees be expected to sign contracts of employment, but there will also be contracts for the rest of their family to sign.

Historically, employers have been much more involved with the wider well-being of their employees:

  • In Victorian times, there was a great deal of philanthropy by business owners – the provision of housing and schools, even the building of whole towns for factory workers. Such benefaction seems to have disappeared.
  • Many large organisations had their own social and sports clubs which engaged with the community. There are now few of these about, most having been sold off.
  • Sales conferences, promotional events even Christmas parties often included extended invites to an employee’s partner. Nowadays, driven by the need for cost savings this is less so.

Those welfare provisions that employers now provide to employee families tend to be much more remote and intangible such as health care membership and pension benefits. They will not feel like adequate compensation for the daily grind that can be imposed on families by an employee’s work.

No doubt employers would argue that it is up to employees as to what job they choose to do. They will know the sacrifices and commitments they will have to make for a particular job role. It is up to them to decide whether or not they want themselves and their families to go through it. Sometimes sacrifices have to be made for the sake of the rewards available.

Such arguments don’t really carry much weight though as they do not excuse an employer from their responsibilities and duty of care.

“The job is well-paid but it involves long hours and will probably end up with you getting a divorce.”

Is that a reasonable ask of an employee? Is that really any different from asbestos exposure in the workplace?

Family welfare will in the future re-emerge as a requirement of good business practice. It may be driven by the legal process and fear of litigation or it may arise from employers seeking to make their employment positions more attractive to potential recruits. Either way, employers need to have family welfare on their future agendas.