Conflict is a normal, albeit uncomfortable, part of life. It is not something that we can avoid. When we do try to avoid it, conflict tends to fester and escalate.

This is true in any sector and is certainly true of the healthcare sector.

Healthcare workers are truly miraculous people.


They face extremely stressful and emotional situations day in and day out, and their work is often done in “life or death” circumstances. To say that stress and conflict will arise is no doubt an understatement.

I have done a lot of work mediating disputes that have arisen between health care providers and patients. Sometimes things go wrong. It might be that a patient is the unfortunate 1 in 1000 to suffer an anomaly of sorts, or the communications that have been exchanged may not meet the expectations of one or both parties. Often, these mediations hinge on the open and honest sharing of information that is vital to increased understanding and acceptance. As a mediator, I find that these situations require a recipe that includes;

  • A safe and comfortable environment
  • Communication
  • Empathy
  • Understanding
  • Time

The NSW Health Care Complaints Commission, and the equivalent bodies in each State and Territory, provide an excellent service for these kinds of disputes. However, I am of the view that mediation processes need to be embraced by the healthcare sector in a way that fosters wider application.

For example, I have recently spoken with friends and family who have sadly lost a loved one. Each situation has involved a need for the family to make decisions pertaining to end of life arrangements of someone near and dear to them. At such stages, families become stressed – they have not had the sleep or self-nurturing that they need in order to think clearly and calmly. They find it difficult, if not impossible, to take into account the needs and feelings of other family members. This does not come from a place of selfishness. It is just a reality when stress and sadness dominate. As a result, tensions arise and communications with family and medical staff become strained and confused.

The assistance of a social worker or healthcare provider with high-level communication and empathy skills can make all the difference. Yet these professionals are also operating in highly stressful environments and there is not always the time or energy to devote to effective and meaningful exchange.

This is where a mediator can play a vital role. They can facilitate a constructive dialogue between family members or between family and doctors, so that decisions can be made with care and cooperation.

Delving deeper into the healthcare system, tensions arise between co-workers, and between workers and their supervisors. Long hours, shift work, high intensity and low resources all play their part in shortening fuses and perpetuating conflict.

Once again, this strikes me as an area that is crying for the intervention of a mediator or facilitator.

A facilitator can be highly effective for group discussions that aim to foster cooperation and support amongst co-workers. Our nurses, doctors and other front-line staff are doing amazing work and they need to be looked after, as individuals and as teams.

Where tensions arise between individual co-workers, a mediator or conflict management coach can play a vital role in breaking the conflict cycle. Such interventions can create positive change within highly stressful work environments.

I would love to generate discussion on this. Have you faced any of these conflict situations? What has worked for you? Or what kind of assistance would you like to have had?