Do or die: The essentials of pre-empting mental ill health at work through effective conflict management
Many workplace tensions that escalate and are not dealt with at an early stage result in the individuals involved feeling mentally unwell. This should not be a surprise as conflict can trigger many symptoms that result in mental ill health. These include having a series of bad days, being kept up at night worrying about a situation at work and feeling anxious and/or stressed. These symptoms can often be treated and the recent NHS Mind Plan is one of a series of initiatives that recognises mental ill health as something that many suffer from and can find solutions to. But, good conflict management in the workplace can transform the experience of conflict into one which is a catalyst for positive change as opposed to mental ill health. When this is harnessed, the opportunity for building resilience and pro-actively supporting the mental health of employees is enormous.
However well someone may seem to deal with a conflict, it will trigger a stress reaction in them. Although stress can be a positive motivating force, it has been identified as one of the main issues currently affecting employee health (Black and Frost, 2011; Hassard and Cox, 2011; Joyce, 2013; Kinnunen-Amoroso and Liira, 2016). The Health and Safety Executive (2017) reports that there were 526,000 workers affected by work-related stress, anxiety or depression in 2016/2017 resulting in a loss of 12.5 million working days, a significant cost to the UK economy and to peoples’ lives.
Organisations need to think hard about how to support their employees to avoid the descent into mental ill health in the first place. By rethinking the way escalating tensions and even conflict are addressed at work beyond the disciplinary and grievance framework, organisations can transform the culture of the organisation and with that behaviours, processes and ultimately results. For this to happen, introducing Mediation and Early Resolution tactics into the fabric of the culture of the organisation has a crucial part to play. This includes the following key components
1.Building resilience: Being comfortable with conflict
The starting point when looking towards being “comfortable with conflict” is to understand that conflict is not only inevitable but it can be greatly beneficial. In any creative process, we will have multiple ideas and differences of opinion. In its purest form, this is conflict. The tension that results is often incredibly creative. In fact, without it, it is very hard to develop something new. The challenge is how we approach the conflict situation. We need to be consciously equipped to manage our mental and physical responses when issues that arise start to challenge or threaten our hopes, dreams, aspirations or emotional sense of safety.
The initial challenge is that most of us run away from the idea of conflict let alone the word. It is not something that we want to associate ourselves with. We see it as bad and we often associate it with personal failure. However, it happens all the time and is simply evidence of our humanity. So, the more we integrate it into our language, the more we accept it as something that is inevitable and that can be worked through.
In other words, when we become more accepting of our struggles with conflict, we start to equip ourselves to have more capacity to address them. We are also less encumbered by our own negative self-talk that “I should not be finding ourselves in this situation”, or “I should be able to deal with this better” which take up a lot of time and head-space. To build this resilience and level of comfort with conflict requires capacity building in the organisation.
2.Education: Building capacity to respond to conflict dynamics
Conflict at work rarely happens suddenly. It generally develops as an accumulation of events, behaviours and conversations which, in and of themselves are relatively manageable but, almost imperceptibly, snowball. Understanding how that happens is crucial to pre-empting dysfunctional working environments.
Key areas of education, therefore centre around:
> Understanding conflict dynamics
This includes understanding how conflict escalates and crucially how we and others respond to it. It also focusses on what individuals to do to pre-empt the escalation of conflict and choosing effective behavioural and practical responses
> Peer coaching conversations
These are different to most conversations we see in the workplace. They move from a conversation in which one person says:
“I hate my manager they were so rude to me”
and the person they are talking to says
“Yes, I never liked them either, you shouldn’t let them get away with that”
to a more honest conversation in which the second person responds
“Really, do you want to talk to me about what is going on for you”
and then is given an opportunity to work through the issues with their colleague;
The peer coaching conversation will automatically change how conflict plays out in the workplace. On an individual basis it will:
> Reduce the unhelpful tendency to move to blame one or other person
> Allow the person who is upset to identify:
What they are upset about
What they want to do about it
Where they need to take responsibility
Other issues that this situation has triggered them to feel upset about but do not relate to the situation
These type of conversations require a behaviour change that needs to be understood and, crucially that people want to adopt.
Incorporating these peer coaching conversations is key to supporting individuals’ mental health. Where teams are trained effectively, people have the room to be vulnerable in a safe environment. When they do that they can in turn feel more willing to take responsibility for their part in the situation without feeling guilt or shame about it. This leads to an ability on all sides to work through options and solutions which ultimately provide the opportunity to turn situations around.
3. Infrastructure: Changing the Psychological Contract with the Employee
On the basis that it does what it says on the tin, our standard Grievance, Disciplinary and Complaints processes invite employees to be aggrieved, disciplined or to complain or for the same to be done about them. The way these policies are set up inevitably invite feelings of blame, shame and with them anxiety and stress. In fact, the process itself is a cocktail for mental ill health.
However, the checks and balances that are contained in these policies and procedures are equally important to setting boundaries in the employment relationship. The challenge is how to bring these corporate structures alive into something that people don’t feel a victim to but actively buy in to.
Crucial to bringing Grievance, Disciplinary and Complaints processes alive is mechanisms to introduce mediation, peer coaching and enabling managers to resolve situations more effectively on the ground. A helpful tool is to replace the Grievance and Disciplinary Process with an Early Resolution Scheme. This immediately changes the psychological contract with the employee from one in which the employee prepares to feel aggrieved or disciplined to one in which all parties have early resolution at the front of their minds. More on this process is in The 7 Principles of Conflict Resolution but the principle is simple, to allow touchpoints to resolve the situation through conversation within the framework of more standard processes and procedures.
We can do more
We know that one in six people experienced a mental health problem in the last week and that mental health problems are one of the main causes of overall disease burden worldwide. We also know that there is no quick fix to mental ill health. However, the interactions we have in the workplace can have a profound impact on the mental health of ourselves and our colleagues. Young peoples’ awareness of mental health is rapidly improving with increasing education at school. It is imperative that this is replicated in the workplace. When we do this, we have the opportunity to not only increase productivity but also provide the opportunity to change lives.