Continuing Education Pays Off at Work and at Home
Springfield Business Journal
Jennifer Baker
March 3, 2008

It’s not uncommon for businesses to offer or even require continuing education, workshops, and training updates for their employees. The world is changing. Technology is changing. Savvy employers know that business must change as well in order to remain profitable and meet the demands of 21st Century customers. What they might not recognize is how making ongoing relationship education more accessible to their employees can impact their profit margin.

It is not uncommon for Employee Assistance Programs today to offer health and wellness education to employees as a benefit. Classes include everything from smoking cessation to weight management, as well as how to construct a fitness plan around walking. Some employers have begun including marriage and relationship education as well. One good example, Chick-fil-A, offers lunchtime relationship education sessions and marriage retreats for its 600 employees and 1200 franchise operators. According to S. Truett Cathy, CEO of Chick-fil-A, “You can’t expect people to do well in their business if they’ve got problems at home” (USA Today, June 22, 2006).

Relationship Education Comes to Workplaces in the Ozarks

Closer to home, Springfield employers are waking up to making relationship education opportunities available to their employees, e.g., through Operation Us. City of Springfield Public Works employees sipped coffee and listened intently one wintry morning not long ago as they learned about the connection between physical well-being and relational health. Relationship stress, they discovered, not only elevates one’s cortisol—the stress hormone that increases blood pressure and blood sugar, while decreasing one’s ability to fight off infection and heal from bodily wounds. Being happily married at 50, they learned, is a better predictor of being alive at age 80 than one’s cholesterol level.

Mary Ellison, Springfield-Greene County Health Educator, says she included relationship education in the City of Springfield health and wellness program, “Live Like Your Life Depends On It,” because “When we help people learn about the importance of relationships and good communication skills, it helps them have a happier home life and a healthier work life.”

That same week members of the Springfield Hotel-Motel Association learned about the benefits of relationship education for the people they supervise. Relationship difficulties, they found, are a frequent source of lost work time, accounting for annual losses of $6 billion in productivity for American businesses (Forthofer, Markman, Cox, Stanley & Kessler, 1996). Even when employees in distressed relationships do show up for work, they are often distracted and perform at substandard levels.

Key Moments for Continuing Relationship Education

Although relationship education can benefit individuals and couples at nearly any stage of life, there are some moments more critical than others. These times occur when people enter a new phase or stage of life. During these transitional eras they are likely to be more receptive to new information, as well as experiencing more stress. Consider, for example, the adjustment to marriage. Planning the wedding can create anxiety in and of itself, not infrequently leading to a clash of values and families. Conflict may be inevitable, but studies show that couples who learn the skills to communicate well and manage conflict safely during this premarital period, report higher levels of marital satisfaction and lower levels of domestic violence up to four years later. These skills are taught in relationship education classes.

<> Then there’s the transition to parenthood. Considering all the adjustments a new baby requires it may not be surprising that beyond the first year of marriage, the highest rate of divorce occurs after the birth of the first child. Studies with expectant parents who participated in a relationship education class while anticipating their first child note higher levels of marital satisfaction and lower levels of separation or divorce than couples who did not receive the same intervention. Additionally, the children of parents involved with relationship education evidenced better health and adjustment at age two than children whose parents did not. It appears that when the couple relationship is happy and healthy, everyone in the family is better off.

Researchers Philip Cowan and Carolyn Pape Cowan highlighted the importance of relationship education at the time preschoolers are making the transition to kindergarten in their study of preschoolers and their parents. Parents of four-year-olds were randomly selected for groups receiving no intervention, consultation with a professional, parent education, or couple education. Children whose parents participated in education for their couple relationship, showed lower levels of aggression in kindergarten and higher levels in academic performance well into first grade than children whose parents received any other kind of intervention. Experts suggest that couples who learn to work as a team at critical moments of family change are more likely to have fathers involved with their children in meaningful ways. Father involvement has been shown to increase a child’s academic performance while decreasing mother’s depression and stress. Taken together, these translate to a more optimal home environment, fewer relationship problems, and increased worker productivity.

<>Special Populations
Getting married, expecting a baby and sending children off to school are all normal and anticipated relationship changes. A positive, preventative approach to these predictable changes is often helpful, but what about unexpected events in relationships? Relationship education can be especially helpful to couples facing the challenges of forming a stepfamily. Given that 47% of all marriages in Missouri are remarriages for one or both partners, it is likely significant numbers of people are facing obstacles in stepfamily formation that might benefit from the support, information and skills training offered in relationship education. Specialized training is available for these groups in programs like Smart Steps for Stepfamilies and Survival Skills for Stepcouples.

Couples in high stress occupations with unusual work hours or required absences also qualify. The U.S. military recognized that the stress of military life and deployment was taking its toll on families and began a number of relationship education programs to help couples keep their love strong even when they are a part. Love Links, authored by Dr. John Van Epp, is one such program constructed to help couples connect emotionally and mentally even when they cannot be together physically.
Return on Investment in Relationship Education
According to Marriage & Family Wellness: Corporate America’s Business, 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 cost saving are realized in greater worker productivity and lower rates of absenteeism. When marriages fail, experts note that divorce can disrupt the productivity of a worker for up to three years. Mueller (2005) found that the average employee experiencing a divorce lost an average of over 168 hours of work time annually.

Given the economic costs associated with relationship tensions and marital disruption, businesses might well consider how to increase their bottom line in 2008 by investing a small amount in relational wellness for employees or taking advantage of one of the federally funded programs designed to increase the skills and abilities to form and sustain safe and stable relationships.