Conflict at work and its effects on staff

Photo by Firesam! via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

A diary-based study carried out with NHS workers and published in May 2012 set out to investigate the emotional effect on employees of witnessing unpleasant interactions with co-workers. The study was carried out with a sample of staff (doctors, nurses, specialists and administrative staff) in a UK hospital department. Participants were asked to record their reactions to over 1,000 interpersonal interactions between co-workers over a period of 15 work days.

Perhaps not surprisingly, employees reported feeling significantly more emotionally drained after witnessing unpleasant interactions compared to pleasant ones. Furthermore, they felt more drained on witnessing the interactions first-hand (rather than hearing about them indirectly). The authors concluded that this third-party effect on employees “has the potential not only to have a negative effect on the individual but to pervade the organisation”.

A certain amount of conflict is inevitable in an organisation in which a group of people with differing opinions, attitudes, expectations, strengths and weaknesses work closely with one another in what can, at times, be a stressful environment. In some cases, a certain amount of conflict can be a positive thing as it can encourage creativity and problem-solving. However, if conflict remains unresolved or poorly managed it can have a negative effect on individuals, teams, customers and the organisation as a whole.

Unresolved conflicts at work can lead to a whole host of problems, including:

  • stress and anxiety;
  • absenteeism;
  • decreased productivity;
  • increased employee turnover;
  • grievance and litigation;
  • accidents and injuries.

Clearly no workplace will be entirely conflict-free as there are always going to be situations in a dynamic working environment when colleagues disagree on a work-related matter or where two people simply don’t get along with each other. However, the health-related implications of on-going, unresolved workplace conflict (e.g. stress, anxiety, depression and related illnesses) will damage an organisation’s productivity. This is why the Health for Work Adviceline (Freephone 0800 0 77 88 44) offers free, professional advice for employers on resolving employee health issues before they negatively affect their organisations.

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