The inquiry by ousted Prime Minister Julia Gillard into gender discrimination into women at work will not solve the deeper problem of conflict in the workplace, according to Dr Doron Samuell, medical director of Corporate Health Services.
Although stress and bullying claims are made statistically more by women, Samuell stated that the issue cannot be simplified down to gender. “Women are more likely to suffer mental illness, specifically depression, than men,” he said. “The other thing is that the kind of industries where women tend to work more than man … tend to be institutional employers – like teachers, administrative positions, public service – these are all roles in which there is a lot of interpersonal contact and claims of bullying and harassment are at epidemic levels.”
Bullying claims – despite primarily being by women – do not often involve gender issues such as pregnancy. “There is a social problem that there is a lot of conflict in the workplace but to reduce this down to women is just nonsensical,” Samuell said.
Common conflicts that arise are often more around performance management and interpersonal conflicts that do not have clear aggressors and victims. “It is a very real fact of life that not everyone is going to like everyone else,” Samuell stated. “But our culture has shifted to being one where any problem is seen through the lens of perpetrator and victim rather than acknowledging there will be levels of conflict.”
Samuell believes managers should be looking to combat bullying and stress in the workplace pre-emptively, by turning their attention towards conflicts and disputes when they first arise. Often, conflict can be resolved through simply fostering communication between the parties involved. This can prevent the situation from escalating and resulting in employees feeling bullied.
However, Samuell acknowledged this will not always be the solution. “I think human resource managers are putting a lot of effort in but it is still spiralling out of control,” he said. In cases where trust and rapport between the two parties has eroded significantly, a negotiated conversation is unwieldy. In these instances, Samuell advices the introduction of external mediators.
These mediators are viewed by the parties as impartial, and can help convince them that negotiation is necessary. “I think by doing this early not only will it resolve the conflict, but you will prevent some of the conflicts evolving into claims,” he stated.
Managers should be wary that addressing these issues is not synonymous with adopting a formal grievance policy, as these can quickly become box ticking exercises. “You are complying, you are not performing,” Samuell explained.
He believes establishing appropriate leaders who examine the issue less formally can result in a more genuine approach to resolution and performance across an organisation. “It is not just the letter of the law; it is the spirit of the law.”
Regardless of methodology, addressing conflicts and disputes within the workplace early on is crucial. “I encourage employers to bite the bullet, to not ignore it and try to address it pragmatically as soon as they can,” Samuell said.