Not long ago, I listened to a person who had come to mediation. They showed me, as much as told me, of what they had been through over the past two years. The sparsity of the room, the cold of broken radiators added to the bleakness of this already bleak story.
I observed how they clung to the piece of paper before them; coping strategies jotted down in a recent psychotherapy session. Dark rings around the eyes. A brave face, yet only revealing struggle and pain.
We had gone through a careful process to assess whether mediation was appropriate at this stage. They had concluded it was, as had I, but it was a close thing, and I remained alert to the challenge of holding space to enable them to ‘sit’ with their emotions, whilst being ready to step in if necessary.
Whilst I did not know the solution to this particular conflict, I felt sure that this person was in great need of ongoing mental health support as well as practical help, and at risk of getting lost in a large, complex organisation that groaned under the weight of change and the need to do more with less.
In fact, my hunch was that resolution principally lay in this person’s capacity to reframe their feelings, perception and approach to this conflicted relationship – something that would almost inevitably require ongoing, focused support rooted in a robust mental health strategy.
On the Day
Fuelled by this, a few weeks later I arrived at Mad World’s 2019 Summit itching to explore the connection between workplace conflict and mental health. My working assumption was that this was a done deal: conflict would absolutely be at the cutting edge of debate and service provision in the wellbeing space.
For whilst conflict is not always present when it comes to mental health, mental health is almost invariably key in conflict. And as the Chartered Institute of Personal Development (CIPD) reiterated once again just a few days ago, dispute and disagreement are “a fact of life in the modern workplace”[i].
I quizzed fabulous exhibitors at every stall bar one in the building (they were being interviewed, alas), and came away vexed: apparently this conviction was not shared by the majority of organisations seeking to support professionals’ wellbeing. By my reckoning, just five organisations present incorporated conflict resolution in some (usually minor) capacity into their strategic thinking or product offering. Most responded as though they were hearing this for the very first time – ‘that’s a really great question!’
How could this be, I wondered, given that according to the CIPD, 35% of surveyed employees have reported experiencing interpersonal conflict in the past year?[ii] Or, since two of the top three effects of conflict are stress and anxiety – surely core symptoms within the mental health and wellbeing space?[iii]
What Is Needed and Why
I didn’t understand it then and still don’t today, hence this call to arms to recognise that conflict and conflict resolution should go hand in hand with mental health and wellbeing.
Don’t get me wrong, it is heartening to see the vitality and commitment on display within this flourishing sector. Good people are giving their all to support those in need, or who may find themselves in need in the future, and much progress has been made.
However, if we overlook this evident connection then we risk missing a crucial driver of mental instability that not only ferments new health problems, but exacerbates existing ones. Note, for example, that 15% of employees already suffer from mental health conditions according to the Stevenson-Farmer Review[iv].
As a mediator, conflict tends to stick to everything it touches; it is the equivalent of woodworm that attacks the foundations of relationships and lives if not dealt with speedily and effectively. This is why I am as interested, if not more so, in asking participants about personal context as much as professional.
My experience has taught me that professionalism and determination are often insufficient to prevent the effects of conflict from spilling over into home life.
In many cases, conflict affects quality of sleep, relationships with spouses and children as well as overall wellbeing, to name but a few. For how long could most of us stay balanced, rested and able to give of our best at work under such pressures over time?
That is why I believe providers should embrace the theme of conflict resolution explicitly in their remit. Doing so would not only provide a useful doorway through which to tackle some of the more challenging aspects of mental health and wellbeing; this approach also sits squarely within Stevenson and Farmer’s core standards, namely providing employees with good working conditions and promoting effective people management through line managers and supervisors[v].
Furthermore, mental health at work plans should sync with collaborative, timely systems to tackle conflict head on, and vice versa.
Yes We Can
We must continue to recognise and break out of our silos in the service of supporting our colleagues, and I predict that the benefits of clearly linking the theme of conflict with mental health and wellbeing will be felt by employees, employers and service providers alike.
Not least the solitary figure I sat opposite during that recent mediation, who deserves nothing less than working conditions underpinned by a joined up, across the board mental health andconflict resolution strategy.
In that moment, they needed help, and I am convinced it is in our power to provide that. So, to paraphrase Sir Simon Wessley, past president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists: let’s own it!
 Sir Simon Wessley, quoted in Thriving at Work: A Review of Mental Health and Employers (HM Government: 2017), p6.https://bit.ly/2S2r3M7
 Managing Conflict in the Modern Workplace (CIPD: 2020), p5. https://bit.ly/38Q7kWL
 Ibid. p2.
 Ibid. p17.
 Stevenson & Farmer, p5.
 Ibid. p6.
About the Author:
Owen Bubbers-Jones is a passionate mediator, conflict management consultant and Director of Bubbers-Jones Consultancy (www.bubbersjones.org). He works with professionals and employers to prepare for and resolve conflict, and to date has worked with a wide variety of NHS trusts, universities, businesses and government departments to mediate complex disputes, train new mediators and embed informal, proactive conflict resolution systemically. More broadly, Owen sits on the mediation rosters of the Green Climate Fund, the Black Sea Trade and Development Bank, International Alert and Search for Common Ground, and is also fervent about nurturing mindfulness practices within the workplace.