The true impact of conflict on the health and safety of employees – Guest blog by Emma Jenkings Mosaic Mediation
I have been a mediator for over 4 years and worked at the Employment Tribunal. So, I have seen the adverse effects of conflict.
‘Conflict’ can include bullying or harassment claims, personality clashes, verbal disagreements, grievance claims, or simply silent friction with another colleague.
Not all conflict is bad, so I will only focus on unnecessary conflict.
Here are just SOME of the consequences of unnecessary conflict in the workplace, that I have come across:
Stress is the most common side effect of conflict. Regardless of the ‘type’ or conflict, it occupies an individual’s mind until it is resolved. It is detrimental for their focus, their interactions with other people, their mental or physical health, and their ability to have good quality sleep.
When there is background stress and a lack of focus, it may cause them to make detrimental decisions. Combine stress from conflict with a high workload, fast-paced activity, and/or external stressors (such as financial strain, personal relationship issues or underlying mental health conditions) and it could then lead to serious consequences.
Stress is also likely to impact the quality of their work, their ability to plan carefully, and it could lead to dangerous errors. Stress in the workplace may feel inevitable, but it has the potential to precede damaging consequences.
As a workplace mediator, I am never surprised when a mediation participant tells me of the far-reaching impact that an argument, or friction, with their colleague or manager has had – on their mental health, their physical wellbeing (such as headaches, or flare-ups of skin conditions or underlying conditions), and, most definitely, their sleep. In fact, I have yet to come across someone who has NOT experienced the side-effects of conflict. And, regularly, at least one of the participants will have taken time off due to stress caused by the conflict – anywhere from between two weeks to 6 months+.
Interestingly – but maybe unsurprisingly – in the CIPD’s ‘Health and Wellbeing at Work’ March 2020 report, 93% of employers that were asked put minor ailments, such as headaches, as the top reason for short-term employee absence. Stress was the third most common reason. In terms of long-term absence, the report found that ‘mental ill-health’ was the top cause – and stress was, again, the third most common reason given.
Estimates from the Labour Force Survey (LFS) also show that the total number of cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2018/19 was 602,000 – and equated to 12.8 million days absent from work.
Such statistics are hard to ignore. Even though not all the cases were related to a falling out at work or clashing with a team member or manager, a significant proportion of them will be due to these reasons. (Therefore, many of these cases would have been preventable absences.)
Disruption to productivity
Not only does time off work tend to cause disruption to the workflow of a company, but conflict between employees or management can also make it difficult to get tasks done, and projects finished to a high standard and on time.
Conflict takes up people’s time and energy – for those in senior positions trying to manage the conflict, and also the delays that are caused when people find it a challenge to communicate effectively with each other, or simply to agree! The more that a team can work together, the quicker and more effectively a job will get done.
Distraction and Errors
A person in the middle of a conflict situation is also likely to be prone to distraction and making errors – especially if they are suffering from the inevitable stress that comes with conflict.
Distractions can come in the form of not being able to focus on the task when the person they clash with is nearby. Or it may arise in the form of disagreeing with this person when they work together or work near each other – taking them away from their job and causing delays.
Stress, distraction and any impact on their mental or physical health can also lead to unfortunate – and potentially dangerous – errors. Errors which would not have occurred had the issues been resolved quickly and thoroughly.
Adverse effect on morale
The morale of an individual is going to be negatively affected by being involved in a challenging situation at work. It is good to also remember the negative influence that conflict has on their colleagues.
More often, it is this impact on the rest of the workforce that leads to the situation being escalated to the human resources department, manager – and then, eventually, me! When tension between two or three people spill over to the rest of the team or the people that they are working with, it can lead to gossip, further miscommunication and greater tension, as more people get involved. Some individuals may try and avoid the ones at the centre of the conflict or, in the extreme, choose to leave the company due to the toxic atmosphere. Structural or people changes can often be unsettling.
High Staff Turnover
As I mentioned, even those who are not at the centre of the situation may choose to leave the company – so it makes sense that those directly impacted might leave too. Many people who, once they hear what my job is, reveal to me that they left a previous role due to conflict with another person. And, during mediations, many participants are very ready to leave, if the mediation is not successful at resolving the issues.
High staff turnover is disruptive to task management, client relationships, training requirements (for new staff members or for those asked to take over tasks), and the morale of a team. Though at times it may be the best solution for a person to leave, this situation tends to be in the minority. Most people would prefer to be able to stay and if they felt that things could be resolved.
Having worked previously at the Employment Tribunal and having specialised in Employment Law during my Law degree, I am all too aware of the consequences of unresolved (or partially/ineffectively resolved) conflict. It can result in someone bringing a claim to the tribunal – which, though no one is required to pay for representation, may involve the significant financial cost of hiring solicitors and/or a barrister. It also costs a significant amount of time and stress to go through a tribunal hearing. There is a LOT of paperwork, decisions and often delays involved in getting to the tribunal.
There is also the consideration of legal consequences if poor decision-making resulted in dangerous errors or delays in hitting contractual client deadlines.
Even if it doesn’t reach the point of going to a tribunal or court, there are the possibilities that the conflict could result in a grievance or disciplinary procedure – which costs the time of your managers for meetings, preparation and management of the issues.
Harm to self-esteem
I left this category until last, not because it is less important – rather because it is so important, and often overlooked.
Even if someone chooses to leave a company because of the conflict, or gets moved to a different team, or if the conflict situation ends without an obvious reason, it can leave a lasting impression on a person’s confidence and identity.
When conflict is unresolved or unexplained, they may start to blame themselves for what happened. Conflict ALWAYS feels personal – whether it is about personalities or processes. Most human beings desire genuine connection and acceptance. Whereas conflict leads to feelings of disconnection and rejection.
There are many people who, many years on, still find it difficult to process what happened and how to feel about themselves and the situation. Many find themselves avoiding situations which have the potential to cause conflict. Many also continue to suffer with anxiety and low self-esteem.
Even if someone does not leave, people with low self-esteem often find it difficult to trust their own judgment and make good decisions – which is likely to impact their effectiveness in their role.
So, what can be done to prevent and manage conflict?
- Encourage clear and kind communication – feedback is a wonderful tool if done well
- Tackle small issues before they develop
- Notice changes – and what impact they may have
- Avoid ‘blame culture’ – focus on ‘contribution’ and solutions
- Recognise the importance of conflict resolution training, and training on having essential conversations
- If in doubt, speak to a mediator about the situation – they may advise mediation, training, or an alternative positive action to take.
Emma Jenkings is a trained Workplace & Employment Mediator, Conflict Resolution & Assertiveness Coach, DISC assessor & Communication Trainer. She started her company, Mosaic Mediation, in 2016 and is now a speaker and author. Emma also offers consultancy or retainer support to companies who want to effectively support their employees and prevent unnecessary conflict. Go to www.mosaicmediation.co.uk for more information.