Improving relationships and mental health in the workplace

In my recent post on 12 Beliefs of Effective Communicators, I mentioned that poor communication - whether intentional or inadvertent - can have very negative consequences on health and wellbeing, not only for the person on the receiving end of the communication, but also for the communicator and everyone else in the vicinity.

What do I mean by poor communication?

  • Communication which is unclear, so that the person on the receiving end does not understand what is being said to or asked of them.

  • Communication which leaves the person on the receiving end feeling diminished. For example, using a raised voice; blaming someone for a problem; or telling someone expressly or impliedly that they are worthless.

  • Manipulative communication. "If you don't do as I say, X will have a very low opinion of you."

Communication like this sparks off fear and anger and other similar negative emotions.

A typical scenario in the workplace [Using the male gender for ease]

X perceives that a colleague, Y, has spoken to him angrily or critically. X feels angry and hurt and interprets all Y’s subsequent actions and words as critical or aggressive. Because X feels unable to speak to Y about it, he starts to behave in an unhlepful way towards him. Y starts to feel angry towards X and behaves accordingly.

The relationship deteriorates and before long they are not speaking to each other. Colleagues in the workplace take sides. Some do not like the atmosphere and look for other jobs. X or Y starts a grievance procedure against the other. One goes off sick with depression for six months.

Unfortunately, such scenarios are very common. They cause great mental distress for the parties. It is not uncommon for both to end up on anti-depressants.

Such scenarios also cost businesses a lot of money in terms of:

  • loss of productivity

  • wasted management time

  • paying wages of someone who is off sick

  • dealing with a stress claim

  • agency fees for finding a replacement when X or Y leaves (usually 25% of annual salary)

  • training the replacement

  • solicitors’ fees if one of the parties starts a claim in the Employment Tribunal (typically £250-300 plus VAT per hour)

How can we avoid this?

The best way to pre-empt problems is by training people to become better communicators in the first place.

Once problems have arisen, the parties need to be provided with an effective process to help them to resolve their differences. This may mean enlisting the aid of an impartial third party to mediate between them.


Training can be challenging because very often people believe that it is not their fault if others are upset by their words, voice tone or behaviour: they think other people need to “toughen up!”. However, effective communicators understand that, if people are reacting badly to what they are saying or doing, they need to change what they are saying or doing.

Trainers may therefore need to help someone achieve a complete 180 degree change in their perception of the process of communication.

Assertiveness training and neurolinguistic programming (NLP) offer many effective - and easy to learn - techniques to help in communicating with and listening to others. These are best learned through experiential learning - it is easy to dismiss something someone else is telling you or which you read in a handout; it is much more difficult to ignore something you have discovered for yourself in a role play.

The role of mediation

Once conflict has arisen, it can be very difficult to bring it to an end. This is where mediation can be very helpful.

If you have not come across mediation before, it is very different from the two main traditional methods of conflict resolution which are:

  • fighting it out; and

  • agreeing or imposing a process where a third party (eg judge, director, or teacher) listens to the parties, exercises the judgment of Solomon, and tells them who is in the right, who is in the wrong and what they must do from now on.

By contrast, in mediation, the parties in conflict are brought together in a safe and confidential process and helped by an independent and impartial third party to talk to each other and work out a solution for themselves. This is successful more often than not (often surprisingly so), and the successful outcome is far better for the parties: people are much more willing to buy into and stick to an agreement which they have freely made themselves than a regime which has been imposed upon them.

The basis and essence of mediation - and why it works - is that the parties in conflict are helped to communicate with each other honestly and clearly. The experience of a successful mediation is itself a lesson in how to communicate with others, and one of the important features of any mediation, where the parties have a continuing relationship, is to help them think about how they will resolve any disputes in future, and agree a plan for doing so.

In a workplace situation, the objective of mediation is to help parties to be able to work together, not for them to become great friends. However, it is amazing how often the mediation process can cause fear and anger to melt away and repair damaged relationships..

Recently, after a successful mediation, a member of the HR team said: “I nearly burst into tears when I saw X and Y talking to each other and smiling. I haven’t seen X smile for a long while”. Prior to the mediation, X had been off work sick for eleven months due, from their point of view, to things said and done by their manager Y - who was also very stressed by the situation.

"I may need help with a situation at work!"

If you have a situation where you wonder whether training or mediation might be helpful, please contact me, Roger Gilbert on 07903 462 015 or Trish Groves on 07548 653 392 for a free, no obligation chat. Alternatively, email us at We offer invidual and team coaching and a range of mediation services.

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