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  • James Judge

Case study: Mediation as a tool for improving return-to-work outcomes

We were approached by an organisation planning the graduated return to work of a senior staff member after an absence of around half a year. This absence was brought about because of a psychological injury that the employee had sustained at work. Psychological injuries are some of the most prevalent, lengthy and expensive to resolve. The injury in this case was found to be linked to a number of workplace behaviours that constituted bullying and harassment.

While the employee was keen to return to work, she was very worried about returning to work in her former workplace. Her supervisor was also concerned, as although he was not the primary source of the bullying, it was claimed that he had contributed to the injury (a claim that was not ultimately sustained through a workplace investigation).

Because of these allegations, the supervisor felt that there had been a complete breakdown of trust between the two of them and could see no possible way that they could ever work together again effectively. Finding another role in the organisation for the employee was extremely problematic, as she had very specific skill sets and any other similar senior position reported into the same supervisor.

We were initially briefed by the health and safety officer, and then conducted face-to-face interviews with the employee and the supervisor. Our goal was to establish trust, explain the mediation process and give each party an opportunity to ventilate their views. At this point we also explained that the process was both voluntary and confidential.

Despite the initial reluctance of the supervisor as to the possibility of any positive outcome, he was prepared to participate and a half day was set aside for the mediation. Each party was entitled to bring along a support person but neither party elected to do so.

On the day of the mediation, after introductory and explanatory remarks from the mediator, each party gave an opening statement about what had brought them to this point. The mediator then assisted the parties in structuring a list of issues they wanted to discuss.

While no immediate attempt was made to resolve any issue, each issue was explored in detail before the mediator then stopped to meet with each party separately, checking on progress and starting to generate options that might work for each party. Reconvening as a group, the mediator then helped them explore some realistic strategies as to how they might work together more effectively in the future.

The mediation concluded with each party reporting that they had new insights into the motivations and feelings of the other party, and felt that they had repaired their relationship to the point where they could now work together.

A series of practical steps were also agreed and recorded around how they would communicate in the future, share information and acknowledge differences in personal styles. Both later reported the process as being a cathartic one – allowing them to move beyond months of anger, fear, resentment and distrust.

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