Bradford Council aims to minimise work-related stress by using mediation to help employees and managers identify causes and solutions. Susan Ingham, Jenny St Romaine and Donna Brearley explain.
Occupational stress is the prevalent condition causing 40% of work-related illness in the UK, with 10.4 million working days lost a year (Health and Safety (HSE), 2013). The impact that stress has on both the employee and organisation is well documented, and the demand on OH to deal with stress-associated illness has increased.
For the individual, if stress is not addressed in the early stages it can have far-reaching consequences both mentally and physically. If untreated, stress can lead to conditions such as depression and anxiety and can contribute to physical conditions such as musculoskeletal-related problems. For the organisation, stress can result in poor performance by staff, loss of concentration, low morale and increased absenteeism.
There are many resources available for employers to help manage stress in the workplace; they usually recommend talking to employees and developing a culture where stress and mental health conditions are talked about and supported. But this is often easier said than done.
Traditional therapeutic interventions such as life coaching and counselling are usually available via OH services and, although these look to aid the individual’s personal recovery, they do not address the perceived work-related stressors.
Counselling is the very thing that frequently prevents an individual from returning to work. It is logical, therefore, that in order to facilitate a substantive return to work, it is necessary to address the core trigger of the stress.
Bradford Council has a workforce of about 14,000. With this number of employees to look after, and in the current economic climate of a record level of cuts to local authorities, it is unsurprising that the in-house occupational health service (Employee Health and Well Being Service) has seen an increase in stressed employees.
Conciliation service Acas has devised training programmes for organisations including “Toxic workplace cultures – how to tackle them” and “Stress in the workplace”.
Both programmes highlight the correlation between stress at work and conflict. Consequently, by its very nature, conflict resolution could be seen as a potential intervention to address perceived occupational stress.
How Bradford Council used mediation to tackle stress at work
Bradford Council has developed an alternative approach to managing stress, which is based on a collaborative problem-solving approach to engage both the employee and their manager in facilitating the employee to return to work, and remain both physically and psychologically well at work.
This involves using a “resolution coordinator” – a skilled mediator to facilitate meetings between the employee and their manager to address the issues of stress – and developing an action plan that supports the employee at work.
It was evident in a number of referrals from managers relating to stress that there was often some tension between their responsibility to manage the attendance situation and a fear of exacerbating the individual’s symptoms.
It also became apparent that, in some cases, a return to work was often protracted due to an employee’s unwillingness to interact with management. This was due to their psychological state or a perception that management was the major contributing factor to their stress symptoms.
There is a plethora of research highlighting that management behaviour has a strong link with an employee’s mental wellbeing – Black (2008), NICE/ et al (2008), The Foresight Group (2008) and the HSE (2007).
Bradford Council’s experience mirrored the national picture. Behaviours identified include managerial frustration and the lack of a cohesive approach to managing stressed employees (CIPD, 2013).
The research has also suggested that stress will be exacerbated by poor communication or a reaction to change or conflict in the workplace.
How does mediation help manage stress?
- The mediator is a neutral impartial third party that can work with both the employee and the manager.
- It is voluntary intervention for all parties concerned.
- The mediator acts as facilitator providing a safe environment for the two parties to talk to each other constructively.
- It prepares both parties to discuss issues or problems by using a non-blaming approach.
- A facilitator does not take sides or dictate what should be done.
The main function of mediation is to enable a joint problem-solving approach to the perceived problem(s).
Why use mediators to manage stress at work?
Mediation has great potential in addressing perceived workplace stressors due to its psychological underpinnings. It is predominately suitable to address workplace stress via effective communication, a problem-solving approach and relationship building.
The mediator’s skills and qualities are transferable, and joint meetings can discuss difficult issues, which are common to both workplace conflict and perceived work stressors. With a successful in-house conflict- resolution service already in place within Employee Health and Wellbeing (cited in the “Acas good practice guide”), the council looked at using the resolution coordinator (a trained and experienced mediator) to approach stress-management action planning in order to facilitate a successful sustained return to work for employees.
The resolution coordinator meets with the employee in the first instance, in a safe unbiased environment, to discuss their perceived work stressors and ways to potentially reduce the stressors.
Then, with the employee’s agreement, a joint meeting of both employee and manager is then arranged and facilitated by the resolution coordinator with the aim of developing a robust stress action plan, to which both the employee and employer can contribute.
The mediation process at Bradford Council
The nurse-led employee health service uses opportunistic intervention when faced with employees who are off sick or who are at risk of sickness absence with stress.
The service uses the opportunity to refer the employee to the in-house mediator (resolution coordinator) as a positive intervention for the employee, rather than simply stating that there is no medical resolution to their situation.
It offers practical support for the employee and manager, allowing both of them to regain some level of control over the situation they are in.
An employee is offered a confidential meeting with the resolution coordinator. The purpose of this is to build rapport with the employee; the employee can feel distrustful of management when affected by stress. It gives the employee an opportunity to talk about their work situation without anyone denying the issues or defending the management’s position, allowing them to be heard without judgment.
The use of constructive paraphrasing (part of the mediation process) allows the employee to hear their concerns without any blame attached. In some cases the mediator helps the employee articulate what they perceive as their stressors. The mediator will not endorse what the employee says and will not give any personal opinions on what has been said.
The next stage is to establish with the employee what actions they believe will support a successful return to work and their wellbeing at work. The mediator then identifies:
- positions (one person’s ideas about a solution);
- interests (the unmet need/why the employee wants a solution and what they would like to happen);
- what the employee feels would be supportive to them at work; and
- both employee and employer positions and interests to help the manager to look beyond the employee’s position and to identify the needs of the employee. There is probably going to be more than one solution that will meet the needs of the employee and this becomes the starting position to explore both the employee’s and the manager’s ideas for a solution. This broader approach to problem solving is more likely to lead to satisfactory outcomes for both parties involved.
The resolution coordinator offers to meet with the line manager to explain the process and purpose of the joint meeting. They will not pass messages or share any information regarding the meeting with the employee at this stage.
The employee’s responsibility in the joint meeting is to say how they see the situation. The manager is assured that the joint meeting is not about their managerial competency and that the mediator will not judge or tell the manager what to do.
The aim of the meeting is to provide an opportunity for the manager to hear how the employee experiences the workplace (this may not match the manager’s perception) and to find out what would support the employee to return to work.
The resolution coordinator facilitates the joint meeting with the employee and their line manager at a neutral location.
The mediator opens the meeting, explains the purpose of the meeting, how it will run and the expectation that a stress plan is developed for the employee.
The employee is asked to describe their stressors and the impact that this stress is having on their wellbeing. The line manager may ask questions to clarify or confirm their understanding of how the employee perceives the work issues.
The mediator then helps the employee and line manager to problem solve about the perceived stressors. This results in the development of reasonable and achievable actions or adjustments that will promote a speedy successful return to the workplace.
The outcomes of the joint meeting will usually include:
- a stress plan – produced to support the employee in making a successful and sustainable return to work; and
- a solution that meets the needs of the individual, their manager and the service.
Benefits of this type of intervention
Using mediation to address perceived work-related stress has these benefits:
- An impartial third person can listen to an employee and help them to understand their perception of the work place.
- Both the employee and the line manager are empowered to resolve issues using a problem-solving approach.
- Both the employee and the line manager will be able to identify workable adjustments that should be supportive to the employee and also meet the needs of the service.
- The mediator facilitates what can be an emotional discussion, keeping both the employee and the line manager focused on the future and problem solving.
- The employee can take a proactive part in his/her recovery and return to work.
- This approach prevents employees becoming victims of the situations in which they find themselves.
- Both the employee and line manager are more likely to action the stress plan if they have jointly developed it.
- It gives confidence to managers in managing staff who may suffer from mental ill health.
- It actively demonstrates and provides evidence of the employer’s duty of care.
Bradford Council has taken an innovative and pragmatic approach to managing stress in the workplace.
The solution offers practical support for both the individual employee and their line manager in developing a stress- management action plan that supports the employee to either remain well at work or make a successful return to work.
Working with its in-house mediator is an efficient use of existing resources; the intervention is a quick and cost-effective way of providing effective assistance to stress management.
Given the success that Bradford Council has had already with this approach, it is an option that could easily be replicated in other organisations.
Acas (2014). “Training and Business skills: Conflict Management“.
Black C (2006). “Working for a healthier tomorrow”.
Baxter S, Goyder L et al (2008). “Promoting wellbeing through productive and healthy working conditions”. Draft review for consultation. NICE London.
Foresight Group (2008). “Mental capital and wellbeing, making the most of ourselves in the 21st century/wellbeing at work: future challenges”. London Government for Science.
Tallodi, T. (2015). Mediation’s Potential to Reduce Occupational Stress: A New Perspective. Conflict Resolution Quarterly. doi: 10.1002/crq.21121