Mediation for better mental health at work

HR leaders are again voicing the need to support the mental wellbeing of staff as the pandemic takes a new twist. This practical guide (updated November 2021) from the CIPD includes a brief survey of some of the latest available evidence on mental health and how COVID-19 is impacting on it. It includes stats from the ONS showing a recent doubling of the incidence of depression in the adult population.

That gave us pause to reflect on how many of our workplace mediation clients of late have been coping with common mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. A combination of personal and work stressors has often been at the root of these.

We’ve also been reflecting on how mediation has been a good option for helping them and their colleagues address work-related stress.

A couple of our cases (with all names changed) illustrate how:

Case 1: Phil and team

Phil was part of a small team working in a care setting. He agreed to a series of mediations to clear the air with colleagues following several incidents. Phil had raised but then withdrawn allegations against colleagues and had then himself been the subject of a workplace investigation.

With only minor action resulting from the latter, Phil had returned to work. But a lack of trust was hampering team-work in a workplace made more challenging by the pandemic. There were also concerns for Phil’s mental wellbeing. It had been affected by both the stress at work and issues at home, and he was on medication for depression.

Case 2: Catherine and Stuart

Catherine, an employee of an education organisation, had been signed off from her full-time job for several months. She was diagnosed with severe anxiety and depression. This pre-existing condition linked to a family situation had been exacerbated by a bubbling conflict situation at work. She was feeling undermined and unvalued. Untimely comments from a junior colleague were the ‘last straw’ that brought bad feelings to a head.

Once Catherine was back to good health again she, her manager Stuart, and their HR adviser, were keen for her to return to the small team. They recognised the need to address the conflict as part of a managed return to work mid-pandemic.

The referrers in both these cases wanted to allow space for those involved to unpick a tangle of issues and understand each other’s concerns. They felt that bringing in external mediators would distinguish the next steps from what had gone before. They also wanted to ensure staff had good support for what were likely to be sensitive conversations.

How did we manage these cases?

As in all cases, our starting point was to check that the participants welcomed mediation. Clients are often unsure about committing until they have heard directly from us about how mediation works and what they stand to gain.

Once that was established, we focussed on understanding and meeting each person’s needs in the process. For example, both Phil and Catherine were anxious about handling their emotions when face to face with their colleagues. We explored those concerns and helped them plan.

Careful structuring

We also thought carefully about how to structure the process. We made full use of the speed and flexibility of mediation to keep things manageable for the clients with mental health needs. In Case 1 for example, where there were a series of one-to-one mediations, we balanced Phil’s wish to move on with the need not to overwhelm him. We also used a combination of in-person and online meetings to suit the different relationships.

Empathic support

The empathic support that mediators provide to everyone in the room is enormously helpful in these kinds of cases. In one of the scenarios above it meant that a participant who had not disclosed their own mental health needs previously, received the same level of support as the person who had.

In both cases, we supported participants who were nervous about raising legitimate workplace concerns with the colleague known to suffer mental ill health. We enabled them to clarify their own needs in the situation and to express them in a constructive way so they could be addressed.

What were the outcomes?

All of the clients in these two cases came away with clear beneficial outcomes.  Having heard directly from each other they had a much better understanding of what had happened and why, and what change was needed.

Clarity and action plans

In case 1, three participants agreed detailed action plans to achieve improvements. A month later they reported that this had helped them to move on. They were re-establishing working relationships based on clearer expectations. Phil fed back that he had felt well supported in his mediations.  He said they had had an immediate positive impact on his emotional and mental wellbeing. Four weeks on, he was continuing to feel that benefit.

Improved mental wellbeing

In case 2, Catherine and Stuart came up with a strategy to address their original concerns. They also identified ways to improve collaboration in the wider team.  Afterwards, Catherine expressed relief that the mediation had gone so well. Four weeks later she reported that it had met all of her hopes, including improving her mental wellbeing. Her return to work was going to plan. With Stuart’s support, she had mended fences with her junior colleague and was enjoying being back.

Stuart was equally pleased at the outcome. He told us that he had been struck by the value of ‘hearing each other out’ in mediation. He had gone on to apply that to the conversation he facilitated between Catherine and her colleague.

These cases are clear examples of how managers can use mediation to good effect in addressing workplace conflict situations where there is concern for the mental wellbeing of one or more of those involved.

We worked in close consultation with the referrers in these cases to provide swift and effective support to their staff. If you are concerned about the impact of a conflict in your team, feel free to contact us, whether for some pointers or direct support.

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