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Handling conflict mediations triggered by COVID-19

The UK workforce has faced the most difficult conditions in living memory over the past four months, so it’s hardly surprising that so many employees have been traumatised by their COVID-19 experience.

Research is already suggesting that mental health issues have increased exponentially during the pandemic, with many employees returning to work suffering from stress, anxiety and depression.

Sadly, one of the consequences of this will almost certainly be an increase in workplace conflict. When emotions are running high, it’s very easy for what would previously have been minor niggles to turn in to full scale meltdowns.

People who are high on the ‘stress hormones’ adrenaline and cortisol often find it hard to think clearly or behave rationally. Their concentration dips, and they are more likely to make mistakes and poor decisions. They become short-tempered and irritable with colleagues, resulting in previously good relationships becoming strained.

At TCM we are already seeing an uptick in not just the amount, but also the ferocity, of disputes coming to us for mediation – and our mediators are reporting that mental health is a factor in a high number of cases.

Lack of line manager awareness and knowledge of how to deal with these tricky situations is compounding the issue. Managers typically haven’t been trained in how to spot conflict arising and nip it in the bud before positions become entrenched and real damage is done.

They often don’t realise that someone who is displaying unhelpful behaviour or performing poorly is suffering with a mental health issue. Thanks to the stigma that still surrounds mental health, employees who are suffering from anxiety or depression – or in some cases even PTSD – are reluctant to talk about it, for fear it will have a negative impact on their career.

To make matters even worse, when disputes do arise, managers have a tendency to head straight for formal HR procedures, plunging already stressed people into damaging and divisive disciplinary or grievances processes.

As the back to work effort continues, HR is going to find more and more of these issues turning up on its doorstep. If practitioners are to support the reintegration of employees and help the business get back on its feet, there are three areas they need to pay attention to:

  1. Improve awareness and understanding of mental ill health, so that managers can spot people who are struggling, make whatever adjustments may be appropriate and signpost them to sources of professional help. Provide training to help managers develop the competence, confidence and courage to handle difficult and sensitive conversations.
  2. Make values the golden thread that underpin everything the business does – and in particular, the way it looks after and leads its people. The key is to develop behavioural frameworks that align with those core values, making it clear to employees and managers how they are expected to behave and what should the influence the decisions they make. If the values are clear, it will help managers develop the people-led, fair and just cultures we need for the future.
  3. Reframe the way the organisation manages conflict, taking an informal-first approach and solving issues through constructive and compassionate conversations, and if that doesn’t work, through collaborative processes such as mediation and facilitated conversations.

It’s about developing integrated resolution frameworks, which replace traditional disciplinary and grievance procedures and give managers a clear steer on how to resolve conflict quickly and effectively.

Looking after employee wellbeing isn’t just the right thing to do, it also makes sound business sense. If organisations are to succeed in the undoubtedly difficult times ahead, they need to make sure their employees, their policies and their culture are in good shape.

David Liddle is CEO of the TCM Group