By Michelle Phaneuf, P.ENG, C.MED, ACC, WFA
THE SUDDEN arrival of COVID-19 in our world has generated an even stronger focus on safeguarding psychological health and safety and workplace wellness in general. Impacts on employee’s mental health are evident with increased stress from significant lifestyle changes, heightened health risks and job stability concerns.
Reports show that the overall mental health of Canadians continues to deteriorate and in December Canadians reported a 12-point decrease in mental health from the pre-COVID-19 benchmark. Display footnote number: 1 Albertans have been especially affected with their score reflecting a 14-point decrease in December 2020.
We see hope on the horizon with vaccinations; we see a possibility of regaining a sense of normalcy. Unfortunately, this comes with more changes for workplaces; employees who have adjusted to working remotely returning to the workplace and changes in staffing and organizational structure. In order to navigate these changes, leaders and HR professionals need to ensure they are taking steps to protect employee’s health, both physical and psychological.
There is recognition this high level of stress (related to low mental health) is and will continue to negatively impact our workplaces. The same report indicates that 36 per cent of respondents are concerned about a coworker’s mental health and 35 per cent of leaders have concerns about the mental health of employees. Display footnote number: 1 We can see it show up when colleagues have an unresolvable dispute, in intra or inter-team conflict, or in an organization-wide lack of trust in leadership. Workplace restoration is a process that can address these unhealthy workplace situations that organizations have either already encountered or are likely to encounter in the near future.
Workplace restoration (WR) is an emerging field that focuses on workplace wellness and restores a psychologically safe and healthy individual working relationship, team relationship or workplace. Restorative practices have a long history and have been used in many settings and situations including schools, our justice system and our communities at large. Although these practices have been developed through the social sciences, restorative practices have deep roots within Indigenous communities throughout the world. The aim of restorative practices is to develop community and to manage conflict and tensions by repairing harm and building relationships.
As a workplace restoration practitioner and instructor through the Workplace Fairness Institute the mission to shape principles that will influence and inform this work continues. The following evolving guiding principles of workplace restoration are tenets that underpin this and many restorative processes.
PRINCIPLES OF WORKPLACE RESTORATION
A workplace restoration should ensure that the process used engages/involves all participants. It is not a process for them or a process that happens to them, but a process that happens with them. Engaging and involving the individuals impacted empowers them to be a part of the solution.
Omni-partiality in a WR suggests that the facilitator of the process is on the side of all parties involved. It is a stance more engaged than an impartial or neutral position, while staying committed to creating a process that does not unfairly advantage any party at the expense of any other party.
When individuals cannot trust each other, building trust in the process is even more important and confidentiality is a big part of this. The WR facilitator creates clarity around where and how information will be shared during every step of the process. Privacy and anonymity are strictly protected.
The WR facilitator has frequent, transparent and direct communication with all participants throughout the process. They ensure participants know and understand the process, their roles and the next steps in the process. Any information shared is communicated with all participants.
Creating a safe space for participants to share concerns and information with each other and the facilitator is paramount. Many of the principles above are used to achieve a safe space.
Participants often feel stressed and pushed to participate in the process. The WR facilitator ensures each individual experiences freedom of choice and exhibits an ability to act on their own behalf. The voluntary nature of the process is protected for all participants.
The WR facilitator must work hard to be aware of implicit bias and cultural differences that may impact the workplace situation. Awareness of their own biases and implementing solutions to address these are also important.
Awareness of the organizational structure and its impact on culture is often difficult to characterize, especially for those who created or are part of the culture. Every workplace has an organization structure, no matter how flat, that impacts “the way we do things here.” The WR facilitator must hold up a mirror to ensure that participants, especially leaders, understand how this is affecting workplace dynamics and behaviours.
Understanding the extent and impact of differences in power and addressing power imbalances is another important notion in the WR process. Power imbalances can be steeped in authority or exercised in other ways through charisma, knowledge or sheer numbers.
WORKPLACE RESTORATION MODEL
The Workplace Fairness Institute has developed a five-phase model as a guide to undertake a successful workplace restoration process. Phase 1 is classified as the organizing phase in which the WR facilitator works to engage the client and stakeholders to understand the process and grow commitment. Undertaking an assessment occurs in the second phase where the opportunity to engage many or all participants builds trust in the process. During this phase, the WR facilitator gathers information to understand the organizational culture, nature of the conflicts and workplace issues. The purpose of the third phase of reporting is to define and reflect back the issues to ensure participants feel heard and acknowledged. The WR facilitator in consultation with a workplace restoration team develops an engagement plan based on the information gathered during the assessment phase. Phase 4 (engagement) is the action phase where the WR facilitator uses various methods to engage participants in connecting and developing solutions. This could look like coaching, mediation, facilitation, leadership support or training. The last phase, Phase 5, focuses on monitoring to measure progress and carry out further assessment/engagement processes as denoted in the cyclical nature of the model.
“Workplace restoration is not a project, but a process of culture change,” said Blaine Donais, president and founder of the Workplace Fairness Institute. “Through our five-phase model we empower leaders and staff to take responsibility for their work environment and to build a new consensus around how they will operate and treat each other. This is critical to healing relationships and moving forward together in a positive and productive manner.”
As an external consultant, Workplace Fairness has used this WR model to support organizations across Canada to restore working relationships, shift teams in conflict or rebuild trust in leadership. In many cases it may be possible for a leader or human resources practitioner to step into the role of WR facilitator. HR professionals often have insight into the issues, experience managing conflict and skills in facilitating or mediating restorative discussions. Using an external WR facilitator is imperative when the group or individuals involved have little or no trust in the organization or their leaders. The WR facilitator and process itself become the channel for building trust.
As with any emerging field, learning is a constant for those practicing and there is no road to perfection, but rather a complex journey to attaining the work environment all employees are seeking. After attending our training, participants have confidence to step into the practice with the appropriate tools while also realizing the path to restoration is not direct or easy.
Although it may seem that a WR practice may not be needed or takes too much time, experience has shown that organizations and leaders dedicating the necessary time and energy have the most successful outcomes. It becomes a new way of thinking and embedded into the culture—how do we include our employees in decisions that affect them, engage in conversations to find solutions and ensure all feel empowered to act? This is a practice that is reflected in the fundamental values of many organizations; of listening, taking responsibility, building and instilling trust and respect.
The last difficult year has created an increased need for restoration in our workplaces and as an HR practitioner you can support. Your employee’s psychological health and safety may depend upon it.
Michelle Phaneuf, P.Eng, C.Med, ACC, WFA, is a partner with Workplace Fairness West, working in conjunction with the Workplace Fairness Institute. She is a conflict resolution professional with a coaching, facilitating and training skillset. The Workplace Fairness Institute is a Canadian leader in the practice and instructing of workplace restoration with its latest offering beginning March 2021. For more information, visit www.workplacefairnesswest.ca.