1. Our media is filled with stories about rising Workers Comp and indemnity costs, bullying complaints and workplace conflict. Are things getting worse in our workplaces?
Certainly recent statistics show that bullying complaints have risen significantly to the point that it became part of legislation as of last year. As well, Workers Compensation injury claims attributing causes to the behaviour of others at work have been steadily increasing. This has resulted in rising costs and is causing concern to business and organisations as well as to individual employees who believe they have been impacted by the behaviour of others in the workplace.
However, I think it is still difficult to say if this is an indicator things are getting worse across the board, but it does mean that there are some things that workplaces need to address adequately as a matter of priority. And it does reflect our changing workplaces, as well as probably reflecting a change in capturing metrics to some extent. A lot of the workplace situations that end up as bullying statistics in complaints and claims would be more correctly assessed as being symptoms of conflict within a work relationship and addressed accordingly.
It seems to me that it is almost impossible to avoid conflict in a workplace. Workplaces by their nature are often made up of a diverse group of people with a wide variety of needs and expectations. I think the key is to recognise the likelihood of workplace issues arising at some point and manage them as effectively and productively as possible.
So whether or not behaviour is getting worse in the workplace, I think what is getting worse is that any kind of distress or discomfort in the workplace often ends up being labelled as ‘bullying’. In trying to seek relief from workplace distress employees are left with only a couple of avenues to change the situation.
2. What do you see are the costs of workplace disputes to an organisation or business?
Costs to organisations, businesses and individuals are significant and many are hidden. The most difficult cost I see is the enormous distress that people in the workplace go through that could have been prevented.
Material costs to an organisation can be: impact on productivity and performance as well as health and safety eg. work accident and/or error rate; absenteeism; Workers Compensation premiums; staff turnover, and possible legal action. In addition there are costs involved in investigating complaints. Complaint investigations can incur significant costs but may not eventuate in the complaint being substantiated as bullying in any case. (Rather the complaint may be more indicative of conflict within a work relationship). Costs to individuals include stress, anxiety and depression.
Hidden costs include the significant time it takes to attend to workplace issues by HR and Management. Time which could otherwise be spent on other initiatives to improve productivity, performance and wellbeing. As well, there is a significant impact on wellbeing and morale within a business or organisation.
3. Do you have any statistics on what workplace disputes can cost an organisation or business?
In 2007, Medibank-commissioned research found that:
- on average, six working days of productivity are lost per year per employee due to presenteeism (attending work whilst sick – stressed)
- Stress-related presenteeism and absenteeism are costing the Australian economy $14.81 billion a year.
- Stress-related presenteeism and absenteeism are directly costing employers $10.11 billion a year
- According to the Queensland Government business and industry portal, Queensland Government research shows over 65% of employee performance problems are the result of strained relationships rather than a lack of skill or motivation.
- Conflict is a major cause of staff turnover and costs your business money. It can take 1-2 years to recruit new staff and achieve fully effective performance.
4. What can organisations do to prevent or effectively deal with workplace disputes?
While a lot of organisations and companies are trying hard to address the situation with the information that is available to them I think it is time to take a more sophisticated, cohesive and systemic approach, as well as a more realistic approach. I recognise that doing this in a workplace can be challenging. It is a lot easier to develop a consistent and systemic approach to operating procedures for example than it is to promote productive workplace relationships and manage conflict, disputes and behaviour effectively. However I believe it is possible from the work that I have done. For example of few of the things that an organisation can do are:
- Establish more effective and meaningful conflict and complaint handling protocols and policies from local level upwards, and including HR.
- Train HR, Managers, Supervisors, employee representatives and personnel such as Return to Work Coordinators in interventions such as Mediation. (In previous times with the advent of grievance procedures, it was seen as essential for HR personnel and managers to do mediation training.)
- Educate all levels of staff in protocols to raise issues productively within their organisation or business. This also includes some skills that can actually be applied in a workplace relationship in a realistic way.
- Establish independent expertise to assess conflict situations and provide recommendations.
5. What are some of the skills that Managers, HR practitioners and worker representatives can benefit from learning or improving?
In general I think everyone in a workplace who is required to manage or intervene in workplace issues would benefit from learning an effective framework to approach conflict and complaint situations. Intervening effectively in workplace issues can require a sophisticated set of skills, beyond being able to bring authority to bear on the situation. Rather than expecting every employee to have these skill sets it is often more useful to train all levels of Management and employees in implementing a framework or pathway to follow if presented with a situation.
Having said that there are a number of micro skills that everyone can benefit from learning. Good training will show how skills can be realistically applied in a particular situation, and not just remain as a nice theory that doesn’t really work in practice – especially in some workplace situations.
Mediation training is one kind of training that can provide an effective framework to manage disputes and will also provide training in some essential micro skills.
6. What are the benefits to an individual who learns workplace mediation skills, personally and to their organisation?
As well as learning actual skills that will assist them to manage workplace relationships as effectively as possible it will provide a framework or an approach to draw upon where necessary. I believe this can bring a greater level of comfort and confidence in managing situations. And of course there are numerous flow on effects from being able to more productively handle challenging workplace situations. For business and organisations it can reduce costs overall and increase productivity and for individuals it can assist with professional and career development as well as create a more positive and less stressful work experience. (NB: Mediation training can also lead to National Accreditation).