In the candid words of Dr. Becky Hoover, interim director of human resources with the University of Akron in Akron, Ohio, "mediation works."
As a lawyer and mediator prior to starting her university career, Hoover has first-hand experience in conflict resolution and mediation. When she joined the university, she also taught mediation courses at its law school. She brought the idea of developing a mediation program to the university's leadership about two years ago, and senior leaders were supportive of giving it a try.
Hoover created a brochure, sent it out to employees, and "the response was really surprising about how many folks were interested in the service," she says. She ran the program as a pilot for the first six months and found it satisfied an unmet need "for an informal way to talk things through."
Tailoring a program to meet specific employee needs is just one reason the University of Akron was recently recognized by the Pyschologically Healthy Workplace Awards from the American Psychological Association. It received a Best Practices Honors award, which recognizes a single program or policy that contributes to a psychologically healthy work environment and meets the unique needs of an organization and its employees.
"The key to success in these [winning] organizations is that they custom tailor what they're doing," says Dr. David Ballard, head of the APA's Psychologically Healthy Workplace program. "They truly take steps to understand the real needs of their workforce and then custom tailor those programs and practices to meet those unique needs."
Conflict can be energizing
Says Hoover: "I think sometimes people mistake a psychologically healthy workplace for a workplace that doesn't have any conflict. Frankly, that's unrealistic. People - because they have different viewpoints on things - are going to find themselves naturally in conflict. And that conflict can be very energizing if it's handled in a constructive way."
About 18 months ago, Hoover launched a mediation website, which was the program's first formal announcement to the university community at large.
Mediation sessions are off the record; they don't go in employees' personnel files. The process isn't meant to find fault or to punish, but rather is "focused on making things better, starting now - helping people come up with a roadmap for how to move forward in positive ways," says Hoover. "And I think that was something people were very appreciative of, and we've had a lot of success with it."
It's a voluntary process, and both parties have to agree to the mediation. A session typically takes two hours, and employees tell their stories about what it is that's making them unhappy.
"We identify the issues and talk about options for addressing those issues, and sometimes we have a written agreement that they take with them that says 'this is how we're going to move forward,'" says Hoover. "Sometimes they want to leave it as an oral agreement, which is fine too."
Hoover emphasizes that it's not her job as a mediator to determine who's telling the truth. "My experience as a mediator is that most people think they're being truthful. They just see things very differently," she says. "We're not talking about evidence and proof. We're talking about what do we do, starting tomorrow, to make things better."
Hoover and her team participated in about 24 mediation and coaching sessions last year, but one formal mediation session per month is a more typical pace. Some issues are resolved through what Hoover calls "shuttle diplomacy," where she talks to one party, then the other, and tries to resolve issues through coaching both people separately.
"Part of the point is that we don't keep files on these people because it can raise their anxiety levels about things," says Hoover. "The data collection hasn't been an emphasis."
Hoover has trained some of her staff in mediation techniques so there was no additional cost to the university to implement the program. In addition to training some of her HR staff, Hoover has trained some peer mediators in the hope that "they might be able to use these skills out in the workplace themselves as supervisors."
Hoover says the mediation process offers an alternative to employees who may be wary of a formal, confrontational grievance process. "Because so many people don't want that, they'll suffer in silence rather than come forward for any assistance at all," she says. "And I think this tool provides another choice for people."
The mediation process isn't punishment-focused, but rather emphasizes relationship building. "I think we're hearing from lots of people who would otherwise have suffered in silence," says Hoover. "And I think that makes for a healthier workplace. People don't let things fester."
For employers interested in starting their own mediation programs, Hoover recommends tapping community resources, such as local law schools or law firms. "Lawyers are increasingly doing mediation, and there are courses they can help connect you with," she says.
Winning organizations National winners of Psychologically Healthy Workplace awards from the American Psychological Association include:
Northeast Delta Dental (small not-for-profit category).
Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research Northwest (medium not-for-profit category).The MITRE Corporation (large not-for-profit category).
Cross, Gunter, Witherspoon & Galchus (small for-profit category).
Exude Benefits Group (small for-profit category).
San Jorge Children's Hospital (medium for-profit category).
First Horizon (large for-profit category).
The City of Grand Prairie (government/military/educational institution category).These employers reported an average turnover rate of just 11% in 2010 - significantly less than the national average of 38% as estimated by the U.S. Department of Labor. Surveys completed by the winning organizations show that only 18% of employees reported experiencing chronic work stress compared to 36% nationally, and 87% of employees reported being satisfied with their job vs. 69% in the general population. Additionally, only 6% said they intend to seek employment elsewhere within the next year, compared to 32% nationally.
A recent APA study found that, despite promising signs of an economic recovery, many employees feel undervalued and stressed out at work and many are dissatisfied with aspects of their job. Conducted online on behalf of the APA by Harris Interactive, the survey found that 36% of workers reported experiencing stress regularly and almost half (49%) said low salary has a significant impact on their stress level at work.
Employees also cited lack of opportunities for growth and advancement (43%), heavy workload (43%), unrealistic job expectations (40%) and long hours (39%) as significant sources of stress. Additionally, less than half of employees (43%) said they receive adequate non-monetary rewards and recognition for their contributions at work and only 57% reported being satisfied with their employer's work-life practices.
Just 52% of employees said they feel valued on the job, only two-thirds reported being motivated to do their best at work, and almost a third (32%) indicated they intend to seek employment elsewhere within the next year.
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