Career advice

Let’s sit down and talk about it

Conflict between colleagues or managers is all too common when working in pressured environments such as the NHS. Disputes can be stressful - leading some to take sick leave - and can escalate quickly into formal complaints of bullying and harassment.

Staff and managers are encouraged to talk openly and honestly, and find their own solutions

Picture credit: Charles Milligan

Mediation is an informal process intended to reach an agreed way forward between two parties who are in conflict at work. The approach has been adopted by East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust (ELHT) because ‘we wanted to provide something more formal to support individuals in resolving conflict at work without having to resort to potentially more stressful processes’, according to the trust’s head of human resources David Smithson.

The trust employs around 2,000 nursing and midwifery whole-time-equivalent registered staff.

A voluntary mediation training scheme run by mediation provider Consensio was established in April and 12 people, including a nurse, were chosen to take part. Eight more mediators are now involved, including two nurses who had been trained in mediation skills elsewhere.

In six days’ training, staff learned how to assess who was appropriate to refer for mediation, how to help them to discuss their needs, and ways to agree positive outcomes. There was role play and a written assessment.

Mediators and staff who take part in the initiative do so on a voluntary basis, Mr Smithson says. ‘You cannot force people to get involved in mediation.’ If they choose mediation they have ‘the reassurance that their complaints will be dealt with confidentially and on an impartial basis’, he adds.

Mediator Carol Evans, a nurse and service manager for the integrated community team, says common issues include staff feeling that they are not being given enough responsibility or that others are not pulling their weight. Managers often believe that they are just trying to ensure that ‘the job gets done’.

The process involves two mediators meeting separately with the two parties to gain an understanding of the issues and establish what they want to achieve. Mediators then meet to discuss possible solutions. ‘Mediators encourage individuals to be as open and honest as possible and to find solutions themselves. That way they don’t feel a resolution has been imposed on them,’ says Mr Smithson.

Typical solutions, says Ms Evans, might be for someone to acknowledge they have been missing deadlines or agree to ‘think before they react to a situation’.

‘Mediation can highlight the personal stresses people may be facing, and pinpoint the reasons why they feel the way they do,’ she says.

Union officials have been supportive of the scheme, says Mr Smithson. ‘We share a common aim to reduce the need for staff to have to go through a formal complaints process.’

Mediation is not, however, a cure-all for conflict between colleagues, and if both parties are unable to resolve their issues the trust will use more formal processes to tackle it.

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