“You Own It!” : Why Conflict and Conflict Resolution Go Hand in Hand with Core Standards of Mental Health and Wellbeing
12th February, 2020
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
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
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 and
conflict 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.
 Managing Conflict in the Modern Workplace (CIPD:
2020), p5. https://bit.ly/38Q7kWL
 Ibid. p2.
 Ibid. p17.
 Stevenson & Farmer, p5.
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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.