Can you successfully mediate a conflict if one of the parties is suffering from a mental illness?
Most of us know that unresolved conflict can lead to ill health and, in particular, can affect our mental wellbeing. Frequently, one or more party involved in a grievance or disciplinary procedure will be absent from work and submit a doctor’s note referring to workplace stress. But are you aware of the extent of the problem and how your organisation may be affected right now?
Research commissioned by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that one in four employees will suffer from a mental illness during their employment. The causes of mental illness can be within the workplace; personal issues outside; or most commonly, a combination of the two. It costs the UK economy over £8.4 billion per year in absenteeism but perhaps more surprisingly; those who remain in work during their illness cost the economy a further 15.1 billion.
The survey found that over half of those suffering mental illness will continue to go to work and explains the many ways in which mental illness affects employees’ work, including putting off decisions; finding it difficult to concentrate; having less patience with clients and customers; and being far more likely to get into conflict with colleagues.
In my work as a workplace mediator, I have found that it is now not usual for one or more of the parties in a workplace conflict to be suffering from a mental illness. So does this prevent a successful resolution? In my experience, it affects the process by slowing it down as the person who is ill takes longer to explain what they want to say and is frequently unable to concentrate for lengthy periods. I have also found that parties who are mentally unwell are more likely to need additional time to reflect on the mediation before reaching the agreement stage. In some cases this has led to a gap of a few weeks and in other cases it has taken longer, particularly if the mediation helps the ill party to acknowledge that they are unwell and need medical help. On a positive side, the mediation is often the catalyst for someone returning to work and making significant changes in their lives which help protect them from future mental ill health. I have also found that returning to complete the mediation after a break has often led to a clarity and a level of agreement for moving forward which was never possible the first time.
As employers we need to have in place a means of readily identifying employees who are suffering from mental illness and offer support. If the employee is also involved in a conflict, leaving it unresolved is likely to exacerbate their illness; it may take time, but the resolution of the conflict often limits the impact of the illness and hastens a return to work. Human beings are capable of overcoming incredible difficulties and emerging stronger; it is in all our interests to assist that process.