Growth in Workplace Mediation - strong or struggling?

For many years those involved in the field of workplace mediation have talked about the great potential of mediation. It is a tried and tested way to resolve workplace conflict that minimises negative impact for those involved and is cost efficient for the organisation. So using mediation should be a no-brainer. Despite this logic and the governmental ‘nudge’ mediation achieved through the 2007 Gibbons Review, the growth of workplace mediation take up is slow.

Or is it?

The problem with this question is that it is a struggle to find meaningful data to provide a reliable answer. What we do know is that ad hoc surveys have given us an indication of utilisation. The Workplace Employment Relations Survey 2011 found that 17% of workplaces (where there were employee grievances) had used mediation. But the WERS survey only happens every 6-7 years and the 2004 survey did not have comparable data. We also know that a survey carried out by the CIPD in 2015 (‘Conflict Management: a shift in direction?’) found mediation was used in 24% (internal mediation) and 9% (external) of workplace conflict issues in the previous 12 months. Again, interesting data but unless the same question is repeated it is not an indicator of the relative growth of mediation.

In the absence of survey data from the user perspective over an extended timeframe another option is to look at what data exists from mediation providers. Those providing workplace mediation services are for the most part private organisations so they don’t publish commercially sensitive utilisation of their services. The best we can hope to achieve is qualitative judgements. Dr Mike Talbot who runs one of the leading providers, UK Mediation, said in an interview on MediatorAcademy* in 2016 “I think in workplace, there’s an increase in growth.” So there may be a sense that there is growth but without data it remains simply an informed view.

Fortunately there is one major supplier of workplace mediation that is a public sector organisation, ACAS. The vast majority of their work is providing conciliation services, including the free Early Conciliation process which all Employment Tribunal claims need to go through. Yet for many years they have also run a chargeable workplace mediation service. Being a public body they report on their activities. So I have researched their published Annual Reports of the last 10 years and picked out the number of mediations undertaken. The results are shown in the graph below:

What this clearly indicates is that with the exception of a couple of ‘outlier’ years the number of mediation cases has remained stubbornly flat over the last 10 years, averaging around 230 per year. The natural conclusion is that there has not been significant growth in use of mediation. Of course, there could be other reasons – perhaps ACAS are resource constrained and are having to turn cases away. Or maybe other suppliers have entered the market and have picked up the growth in demand at the expense of ACAS. Whatever the reason, the figures tell a story and certainly the most obvious one is that growth is flat.

Does this align with my own personal experience as a mediation supplier? From what I’ve seen there is definitely a lot of interest in mediation but interest doesn’t necessarily translate into actively using it. Plus I would argue that awareness remains very low. We are still at an early stage of the ‘product lifecycle’ of workplace mediation. Until awareness grows and using mediation becomes commonplace rather than exceptional I would expect to see low growth. The answer is for all of us who recognise the value of mediation to spread the word as widely and as rapidly as possible.