Graham Boyack: Could your workplace pass the stress test?

If it couldn't find out more about conflict resolution, says Graham Boyack

Many employers don't have the skills to tackle workplace stress. Picture: Laura Lean
Many employers don't have the skills to tackle workplace stress. Picture: Laura Lean

Most mediators would be very wealthy if they were given money when people had said to them: “I wish I’d spoken to you earlier.” So many organisations have procedures that push people into disputes rather than seeking to resolve issues at an early stage.

One of the key reasons people end up in disputes is that employees are not encouraged to develop the skills that might allow for earlier resolution. Sometimes this is because of a culture in the organisation and sometimes it can be down to a view that such skills don’t have an obvious return on investment or are somehow soft skills that don’t merit priority.

Two publications last year provided valuable research into these issues. Both Getting under the Skin of Workplace Conflict from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and Difficult Conversations from the Chartered Management Institute contained useful insights.

The CIPD research found that four in ten employees faced conflict of some sort in the workplace with the most common being conflict with line managers and supervisors. The main impact is stress, a drop in motivation and commitment with a smaller number either being unproductive and in one in ten situations either the employee or the line manager leaving their job. Another potential impact is sickness absence.

In terms of conflict resolution, the research suggested that the best results are obtained by a mixture of formal and informal channels. The authors commented: “In particular this should include approaches such as mediation, which are currently rarer options than formal channels, but importantly provide a way to facilitate informal discussions. It does little good to rely on grievance and discipline procedures alone, as this will often mean conflict festers until it escalates to a serious level.

“Such action may not make the more established grievance and discipline procedures redundant, but will help nip potentially very damaging conflict in the bud.”

Given these comments, what is perhaps most concerning is that “1.5 per cent of employees who report conflict used mediation, most of which was provided by the employer.” There is a gap that needs to be bridged and work needs to be done to make mediation more widely used.

The CMI report looked at difficult conversations in the workplace and discovered a great reluctance to engage in such conversations. “Brits find it harder to ask their boss for a pay rise than to dump a partner,” the report concluded.

The top three difficult conversations in the workplace identified by the research are pay, inappropriate behaviour and feedback on poor performance. Two-thirds of employees indicated that they had felt stressed or anxious when they knew that they had a difficult conversation coming up. Related to this it was also found 80 per cent of those surveyed had never received any training in how to tackle difficult conversations at work.

Our response is that a key role we can play is to provide information and to promote mediation, the skills involved in mediation and how to access it. We do that in a number of ways; through a free public helpline, hosting a register of mediators and by engaging with a wide range of organisations and stakeholders to promote mediation.

Part of our work is also about making mediation work for organisations. Last year we launched a Third Sector Mediation scheme designed to provide a focussed service for charities and voluntary organisations. It combines a free service for organisations with a turnover below £50,000 and a fixed price option for organisations with a turnover between £50,000 and £250,000. We have done so in partnership with the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations and run a dedicated Helpline to help those organisations find the right solution.

• Graham Boyack is director of the Scottish Mediation Network