By the time workplace disputes have reached the attention of Employee Relations, mediation starts to look like a last chance saloon for informal resolution. Problems have festered, positions have hardened, pressures have climbed and climbed on those involved and the line manager.
Mediation is meant to start a conversation early. For a stage when talking at a reasonably informal level makes all the difference: when people are still willing to be open-minded, to explain, to appreciate different perspectives, when formal processes can be avoided.
So, it’s only sensible that mediation should also be part of the health and wellbeing toolkit, a form of everyday talking therapy rather than left further along the scale, branded as part of a set of “serious consequences”, even a form of punishment. Health and wellbeing as a focus of attention on staff and an everyday programme of activities is ideal.
As the basis of our day-to-day experience and workplace relationships, good conversations are fundamental to health and wellbeing, how we cope with stresses, the rollercoaster of organisational life, and good mental health. Workplaces continue to depend on maintaining a professional persona, on caution in terms of what we can say to who, of avoiding disagreement and admissions of mistakes or weaknesses wherever possible, avoiding risks and difference of any kind. Conversations are stilted and limited. There’s a lack of openness and trust, and that leads to confusion, grievances and a lack of a sense of control – and that’s not healthy for anyone.
Including mediation as part of the health and wellbeing package of support and services would be a practical step forward, signposting people to a practical, informal method of resolving differences before they can become far more deep-rooted and complex, with implications both psychologically and physically.
Despite all the work on raising awareness of the benefits of mediation, it’s still an under-used approach; employees are still opting for the route of formal dispute processes, blame, recriminations and tribunals, avoiding ‘difficult’ conversations. Employers need to be working on a basis of trust and openness, to always start with a conversation about the potential of mediation, in order to access significant benefits in terms of culture, cost savings, engagement and productivity.
With this in mind, it would make more sense for there to be a mandatory expectation that employees should try mediation as a first step. Asking an employee to take time out to meet someone who is non-judgemental and supportive for a private 1-to-1 conversation, is a very reasonable request from management – and not the same as forcing people to make an agreement. The parties involved are still in control of how the process moves forward, whether they want to try the joint session or something more formal. In our 30 years of experience, a good mediator will overcome any scepticism and fear and progress the parties towards a resolution. However, the earlier the intervention the more chances there are for success.