22 May 2017
A report on: Addressing Mental Wellbeing Issues in the Workplace
a review of CEDR's workshop 11 May 2017, by Ben Thomson
“Man Up!” - Piers Morgan’s latest advice to Britons suffering from mental health problems during Mental Health Awareness Week. Old-fashioned and obsolete, these comments seem out of step with most current attitudes towards mental health. Increasingly, mental health wellbeing has attracted attention as a nationwide phenomenon, most recently with Prince Harry seeking support 20 years following the death of mother, Princess Diana.
Mental health issues are likely to affect us all at some point in a workplace context, either directly or indirectly through a close friend or colleague. For Mental Health Awareness week, on Thursday 11th May, CEDR brought together cross-industry experts to explore mental health well-being issues in the workplace and how mediation could be used to manage and resolve workplace disputes.
Hosted by Mishcon De Reya LLP, the diverse panel comprised a wealth of knowledge and experience on workplace mental health and spoke candidly about both their personal and professional insight on the matter. The session began with each panel member reflecting on their past and current encounters with workplace mental health, how they tackled these issues in a professional capacity and what can be done in the future to handle such disputes.
- Fiona Colquhoun (Chair), CEDR Director and Mediator and Coach
Fiona highlighted how attitudes to mental health have evolved over the years. As a former HR Director, she illustrated how traditional, antiquated approaches to mental health have evolved from “pull yourself together” to her instituting early initiatives such as employee assistance programmes. Fiona also provided practical insights from her mediation experience and the value of individuals with mental health issues using mediation, where appropriate, as early as possible.
- Lisa Drake, Director of Operations & Human Resources at the Elliott Wood Partnership and CEDR Mediator
As an experienced mediator and current HR Director, Lisa stressed that mediation should not just be used as an Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) tool in a commercial setting or when the matter has become litigious, but an avenue for early interventions, to tackle mental health issues within the workplace. Lisa emphasised the flexibility and adaptability of mediation and how it can be very useful in bridging the gap between employers and employees when relationships have become strained.
- Emma Mamo, Head of Workplace Wellbeing at Mind UK
As Head of Workplace Wellbeing at Mind, Emma presented an overview of the commercial rationale for supporting those with mental health issues. She underlined three key problems ensuing from failure to address mental health concerns among your workforce: High staff turnover; aggravated periods of employee absence; and diminished productivity. Emma staunchly advocated support for employees who suffer from mental conditions as part of the effective running of a company.
- Laura Penny, Managing Associate – Employment at Mishcon De Reya
As an employment lawyer, Laura warned that mental health issues in the workplace run the risk of developing into different types of disability discrimination claims. She emphasised that mental health, unlike other forms of disability are difficult to track and therefore manage and treat. Laura also stressed that mental health in the workplace was not purely about a potential claim, but the time and resources that can be spent in adversarial processes or squandered through mismanagement.
- Caroline Sheridan, CEDR Mediator, Executive Coach and Chair of the Civil Mediation Council (CMC) Workplace and Employment Committee
An experienced mediator, trainer and coach, Caroline honed in on the mediation process, laying the foundation for the later debate on how mediation can and should be adapted to cater for mental health in workplace disputes. Caroline also shared her personal and professional experiences with mental health issues and strategies for dealing with them. She also referred to post mediation support which can be very useful in cementing the outputs of mediation.
Following the opening session, the discussion split in sub-groups where participants, with the assistance from panellists, exchanged ideas on specific topics.
Key Areas of Learning:
Performance – Improving the performance of those with mental health issues
• Organisational culture: The creation of a supportive organisational culture through designing and implementing appropriate policies and processes to ensure early diagnosis and thus timely intervention, reducing stress. This in turn supports good and constructive professional and personal relationships critical for individual and organisational performance.
• People management: The establishment of peer support networks and access to employee assistance programmes and access to managers trained, skilled and supported in sensitively managing the issues that may present themselves, including how to effectively prevent, manage and resolve conflict.
Mediation can have varied and creative outcomes and transfer or redeployment can work to the benefit of the individual, the department and organisation. One panellist highlighted a past case concerning a highly skilled engineer who, while technically sound, struggled with the management aspect of his role. This caused him tremendous stress and anxiety, affected his ability to earn bonuses and impacted heavily on his morale and, in turn, that of his team. Mediation allowed him and his employers to find a position for him that provided a platform for his talents while removing stress-inducing management responsibilities.
Mediation in unison with other support
This session built on the experiences of the panellists in effectively using mediation to tackle workplace mental health disputes and examined what other techniques and processes could be used.
Principal among these were: ensuring that managers received adequate training to be able to, at the least, have conversations with mentally ill health sufferers within their team; engender a culture of openness surrounding mental health and guarantee respect, confidentiality and voluntarism; offer or facilitate psychological referrals. Furthermore, there should be a companywide understanding of the importance of good mental health.
Mediation – adapting the process
In respect to the actual mediation, two key points emerged:
This aspect covers a range of considerations that should taken into account when managing and mediating workplace disputes with mental health and well-being issues.
Mediation is a voluntary process. This aspect must be stressed when arranging to mediate with someone who suffers from mental health problems. They need to feel able to partake in the process of their own volition because to pressurise them may exacerbate, not only their condition, but also the prospect of resolving the dispute.
Time the mediation. Timing can encompass a number of points for example determining the best time of the day to conduct the mediation. Mental health problems can render individuals unable to function at certain times during the day. Acknowledging this, it may be prudent to schedule only morning or afternoon sessions or a mixture of the two. Furthermore, when the mediation takes place is important. In commercial mediation there is often a desire, pursuant to a principal advantage of mediation being swiftness, to commence proceedings at the earliest possible date. With workplace mental health disputes, this approach may need to be tailored. Delaying the mediation until a more appropriate time may be necessary.
Finally, location. Some may find it uncomfortable to mediate on the premises of the company or indeed within a formal corporate environment. Just as the mediator must be noticeably neutral, the same may apply to the location of the mediation. Sensitive planning considerations break down the perception of a ‘corporate crusade’.
ii. Ways of working together
Mediating mental health, workplace disputes can require a different style of engagement.
Establish ground-rules for the entire process. Set out the ‘rules of engagement’: how the parties communicate prior to, on the day of and after the mediation and if there are any specific concerns to be taken into account. This enables both parties, and in particular any with mental health issues, to feel secure and in control of a process geared towards them.
Take breaks. Mediations can be intense and emotionally taxing, especially with workplace disputes. Taking sufficient breaks can prevent the parties from becoming overwhelmed, endangering the process or potentially driving the parties further apart. Sometimes it is useful to hold sessions over periods of time to allow the opportunity for reflection and not putting people together until it is safe to do so.
Joint vs. Individual meetings. There may be a need to establish a framework for how the parties convene and interact. Joint meetings, depending on the relationship between employee and employer be counter-productive, equally, relying solely on individual sessions might hinder progress.
Mediator – specific challenges for the mediator when dealing with mental health issues
i. Choice of the mediator.
Party-autonomy over the process is crucial to all mediations, but especially so those with a mental health component. These parties need to feel empowered with respect to the choice of the mediator and need to feel exceptionally comfortable with this individual as the mediation will often explore complex and deeply personal issues.
ii. Neutrality of the mediator
The mediation needs to be demonstrably neutral to remove the destructive ‘them vs me’ dynamic which can develop between an employee and employer. Building on the ‘choice of mediator’, the mediator needs to emphasise their role as a neutral third party, wholly removed from the ‘corporate machine’ and the interests of the employers. If the mediator would be seen to align with the employer, this will often dissuade the employee from partaking in the mediation or at the very least diminish the chances for resolving the dispute on the day.
iii. Pace of the mediation.
CEDR’s mediator training stresses that the pace of the mediation is important. Mediators need to ensure that mediations do not stall, that progress towards a settlement is made. This has to be balanced with sufficient exploration of the facts and issues, but entrenched discussions are a waste of time, money and energy. Therefore, in commercial mediation, mediators frequently demand that the parties work at a high intensity, however this may not be appropriate when mediating disputes with mental health elements; mediators need to be skilled in recognising when to slow down the process.
iv. Know your limits
Mediation should not be seen as a standalone process. Referring back to Section 2, Mediation in unison with other support, mediators need to be able to understand when the mental health sufferer needs to see a medical professional. This can be either before the mediation commences or at any point throughout.
The feedback received and the experience of attendees signalled a tremendously successful and worthwhile event. The real value of the event was the abundance of real-life experience offered up by the panellists and the exchange of ideas during the breakaway sessions which demonstrated a very strong interest in the subject.