In the run up to the BAFTAs I have been watching a lot of films lately – Birdman and Foxcatcher being the most recent two. Both films have extremely interesting plots and characters: Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomas, a former movie star most famous for playing ‘Birdman’, who has written, directed and starred in his come-back performance of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. Likewise, Steve Carrell plays multimillionaire John Eleuthere du Pont, who set up a training camp for American wrestlers called Foxcatchers, where he established eccentric relationships with Olympic gold medal-winners David and then later Mark Schultz.

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Both films soon reveal insights into the main characters that make you question their mental health. In the opening scene of Birdman, for example, Riggin Thomas practises yoga semi-naked floating two feet off the ground, and recurrent scenes infer that he has telekinetic super-powers – moving coffee cups, glasses, furniture and stage props. This is intermingled with a recurrent ‘bad angel’ voice that appears when Birdman is facing a dilemma or under stress. The audience is left with the dilemma to figure out a super (or suffering) human themselves.

In Foxcatcher, John ‘Golden Eagle’ du Pont plays a multi-millionaire who craves the approval of his mother and of the wrestling world. More than anything, DuPont wanted to be seen as a mentor and coach to athlete leaders. The film traces the downward spiral of the man as he becomes increasingly paranoid and displays schizophrenic tendencies, and ultimately ends murdering Mark Schultz.

Although the Foxcatcher story is based on real life, watching these films inadvertently made me reflect on mental health and workplace conflict. Defined as ‘the mental and emotional state in which we feel able to cope with the normal stresses of everyday life,’ approximately 1 in 4 British adults will be affected throughout their lifetime with mental health disorders, with anxiety and depression being the most common.* These psychological stressors can emerge through being involved in conflict in the workplace. The Centre for Mental Health has estimated that the total annual cost of mental health problems at work is over £30 billion (which includes absence as well as workplace presenteeism [being present but not engaged]).

The effective management of workplace conflict is critical to prevent and manage employee mental health. So what can organisations do? First, they need to recognise that destructive workplace conflict is harmful, and to then promote active conflict management systems and behaviours. Solutions can range from establishing processes that allow individuals to find resolutions to their issues swiftly and effectively to ensuring that their employees have the skills to recognise and have difficult conversations. If these strategies are adopted, then workplace conflict is reduced and therefore minimises the psychological stressors that can lead to anxiety and depression. This results in a healthier workforce and business performance. Although mental instability can create award-winning Hollywood characters, employers need to be mindful of its potentially negative effects in the workplace and actively provide the resources necessary for facing it.

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By Andrew Fiddy

Andrew Fiddy is CEDR’s Programme Manager responsible for the management of international aid-funded dispute resolution and change projects. He has managed projects in the Middle East, North and East Africa, and Central and Eastern Europe for clients that include the International Finance Corporation, World Bank and the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development. He is a CEDR accredited mediator and is a conciliator with the Funeral Arbitration Service and the Renewable Energy Association.