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Although the holiday period is, for many, a joyful and deeply fulfilling time of year, we know that for many, it can be an extremely challenging and even lonely time.  As the holiday period approaches, staff most keenly affected by conflict are generally those working in client facing roles.  Some will regularly be working with people who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.  Equally they might just be under extreme pressure either personal or professional to “get things done” or “meet targets” before Christmas.  This presents dangers not only to the physical safety in the event of often erratic behaviour but also to the mental health of front-line staff.

Conflict and Mental and Physical Health consequences for front line staff
I was recently working for a client and was talking to one of their front-line staff.  This individual provided a service function dealing with members of the public who were often drunk or had taken drugs.  He had worked in the business doing his job for over 20 years and, albeit he had had no conflict resolution training, had presumed that he could “handle it” as he had always got by in the past.

He had found himself in a situation between last Christmas and New Year last year which had caused him to feel highly anxious to the extent that he experienced chest pains and pain in his left arm.  The situation had arisen because some of his service users had started to be rude and aggressive to other customers and he had asked them to refrain.  In response to his request, the customers attacked him physically pinning him to the wall leaving him in fear of being physically harmed which he, in fact was not.

Until meeting this individual, even as an experienced conflict resolution practitioner, I had, somewhat naively, only considered the mental health consequences of not addressing conflict effectively in the workplace.  When I heard his story, however, it struck me in between the eyes that anxiety created as a result of conflict can be deadly.

Equally, I, and the organisation, recognised the pressing need to support staff to ensure that conflict arising out of engagements with customers did not escalate to becoming physically threatening.  What became abundantly clear was that there where staff learnt core skills and worked to key principles they were quickly able to dissipate conflict more effectively and feel confident going about their daily business.

As a consequence, it made me view the case for equipping employees with early resolution skills even more pressing to ensure staff and customer safety, customer satisfaction, employee engagement and a healthy environment

Create effective and varied lines of communication
Platforms that allow employees to share their experience can sometimes be a repository for people to vent opinions and experiences that they might not otherwise share.  Although I am not a fan of internal company social media because of the resentment it can stir up, if well monitored, it can catch communications and the expression of opinions that might not otherwise come out.  Where this is left to simmer, it can serve to build factions against the organisation and indeed its customers or clients.  However, where it is picked up and addressed, it can be transformational.

Crucial to maximising on the opportunity is following up with face to face conversations in which employees can fully talk through their experience is crucial.  Equally crucial is ensuring that these conversations can happen without judgment rather as opportunities to review, explore and learn.

Build on conflict resolution skills
In customer facing environments, it can be difficult to balance giving the best service to clients whilst, at the same time setting clear boundaries.  This demand is even more acute in the face of seemingly impossible customer demands coupled with organisational constraints.  Key capabilities will be:

  • Good questioning skills: Asking robust open questions focussed on getting a customer’s needs met provides a basis to create common interests.  Focussing the customer on outcomes as opposed to what they might be upset about allows the employee to present themselves as a problem solver with the customer rather than an enforcer
  • Strong listening skills: Where employees can listen to customers with the goal of understanding customer needs rather than to respond.  This immediately enables a more open and effective conversation.  They are also better equipped to get underneath what the customer wants rather than what they seem to be making a complaint about.
  • Setting clear boundaries: Employees need to know what they can and can’t accept and the support they may receive.  In our example above, the employee set a boundary around behaviour that he did not have resource to enforce.  It also creates clarity about what the employee can and can’t do for the customer so takes away the frustration of overpromising and under delivering.  BY simply saying “What I can do is X and what I can’t do is Y” creates clarity around the situation, demonstrates a desire to help
  • Equip staff to coach and support each other through challenging situations with customers. This may be at the time but it may also be in terms of de-briefing and examining lessons learnt when a situation has gone wrong or felt like it got out of control.

Manage the environments
Working with the general public can be unpredictable.  Front line staff can sometimes be seen as the barrier between the customer and what the customer wants.  If a customer has had a tough day or something bad has happened to them then they can sometimes become angry at the customer facing employee.  There are some key points that need to be considered when managing that environment:

  • Consider physical obstacles and opportunities and plan for these. This may range from anything from crowd management to seating arrangements.  The more thinking done in advance, the more issues can be pre-empted.
  • Consider who may be available for backup and when and how they may be brought in
  • Consider when and how additional resource may be pulled in
  • Ensure staff communicate before and after challenging shifts to ensure they are and feel supported beforehand
  • Consider and communicate health and safety issues on an ongoing basis. Where employees and customers know that their health and safety is being considered and reviewed on an ongoing basis they feel safer and less anxious so less likely to react to actual or indeed perceived fears.

Audit your conflict
Working out the cost of the impact of conflict on an organisation’s bottom line is relatively easy and helps to support the business case to put provisions in place to mitigate that cost.  It also supports the process of changing the culture of the organisation to be more mindful and/or responsible with respect to the dangers of mental ill health they may be exposing their employees to.  Key areas that should be analysed include:

Sick leave
Although the number of employees going off sick in 2016 (Office of National Statistics) went down, the cost to organisations in terms of time is not insignificant.  11.5% of those days were lost due to mental health issues including stress, depression, anxiety and more serious conditions such as manic depression and schizophrenia.

Level of grievance, disciplinary and investigative processes
Entering into the grievance and disciplinary process can, in an of itself escalate the conflict and cause anxiety and stress amongst employees.  Increased grievance and disciplinaries often leads to decreased employee satisfaction and motivation and does not necessary reach the root cause of the issue.  The fall out can often be low level mental ill health.

If levels of grievance and disciplinary are high, a relatively quick win can be to introduce an Early Resolution Scheme.  This scheme may include many elements of the disciplinary and grievance process but will include mentoring, coaching and mediation at various levels.  Most importantly it can change the psychological contract between the employer and employee from one where people are “aggrieved” (upset) or “Disciplined“ (proven to be in the wrong) to one where they are thinking of resolving the situation early and therefore empowered.

Customer complaints
The level of complaints will not only illustrate the effectiveness and productivity of the organisation but also the levels of stress that the organisation is exposing its staff to.  Complaints often escalate because of tensions on the front line and poor communication.  In the mix therefore, if customer complaints are high then so will be the levels of stress experienced by staff.

Supporting employees to deal with conflict better through both the organisational infrastructure and core skills can therefore have a direct effect on health and safety.  For many organisations, these high stress situations can feel impossible to pre-empt or avoid.  However, introducing core early resolution skills and strategies throughout the organisation and equipping employees to function under pressure has the potential of creating a virtuous cycle of better management structures, more engaged employees and significantly happier customers.

Author of The 7 Principles of Conflict Resolution & Mediator & Trainer at The Conflict Resolution Centre

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