Minimising the impact of workplace conflict on mental health

Melanie Roberts
September 6, 2017

Conflict in the workplace is inevitable; there will be disagreements about workplace matters and there will be personality clashes. Where conflict is not well managed it can be damaging and certain types of conflict will always be damaging, such as bullying behaviour, discrimination, harassment and intimidation. Where conflict is left unresolved it can intensify and spread, affecting more than the two individuals originally involved, to affect a group of people and sometimes the whole workplace.

Workplace conflict can cause considerable stress and this can lead to mental health issues. Mental health is defined by the World Health Organisation as “a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”

Consequences of mental health issues in the workplace

The consequences of mental health issues in the workplace are numerous:

  • Work performance and productivity are reduced as employees are not working at their optimum, and this leads to poor decision making and increased rates of errors and accidents.
  • Employees may avoid meetings and become difficult to approach and their workplace relationships with colleagues and managers are negatively impacted.
  • Relationships with clients and customers are adversely affected.
  • Rates of illness and absenteeism are increased both for psychological conditions such as sleep disorders, anxiety and depression, and physical conditions which are caused or exacerbated by stress such as heart disease, headaches, back pain and gastrointestinal disturbances.
  • Staff turnover increases and with it the associated increase in recruitment and training costs.
  • There is an increase in lodging of formal complaints which increases costs in time and money to deal with the complaints.
  • Compensation claims and lawsuits are lodged.
  • Impacts negatively on workplace morale.
  • Organisational reputation damaged leading to loss of customers and clients.

Approximately $480 million each year is paid in workers compensation for work-related mental health illnesses, according to Safe Work Australia. Workers’ compensation payouts for mental illnesses cost nearly three times those for physical illnesses, with employees absent from work for almost three times as long as those for physical illnesses.

Mental illness is now the leading cause of sickness absence and long-term work incapacity in Australia and mental health issues are costing Australian businesses between $11-$12 billion each year, according to the Black Dog Institute.

These figures highlight the huge financial toll to businesses for ignoring risks to employees’ mental health. There are clear economic advantages to reducing the risks of conflict and providing a mentally healthy workplace. Workplaces with employees who take time off for mental illness often have entrenched bullying cultures and in order to address mental health issues, problems such as bullying need to be taken seriously.

Workplaces have a legal responsibility to provide a safe workplace. Efforts to reduce conflict in the workplace and improve mental health of workers would bring benefits to the employee in terms of a healthy psychological well-being, and benefits to the employer and organisation in terms of reduced absenteeism and increased productivity.

How to reduce conflict and provide a mentally healthy workplace

Many organisations do not know how to manage the impact of conflict and provide a mentally healthy workplace. Risk factors need to be understood and appropriate action taken to minimise their potential negative impact on employees’ mental health:

  • It is important to develop policies and procedures that set the standard of workplace behaviour and to enable employees to raise concerns and report unreasonable behaviour.
  • Training at work on expected workplace behaviour and conduct, including all relevant policies and procedures, for example the prevention of bullying, harassment and violence at work is essential.
  • Management training to help managers and supervisors support their staff and to identify risks at work, and manage conflict is imperative.
  • Staff should have access to Employee Assistance Programs or counsellors.
  • Conflict coaching can help both with managing existing conflict in the workplace by employees’ working on-on-one with a coach to assist with understanding and managing and resolving conflict. Conflict coaching can also assist employees who have been absent from work, with their return to work in order to manage potential future conflict.

About Melanie Roberts

Melanie RobertsMelanie Roberts has extensive experience conducting workplace investigations within the NSW public sector, undertaking a wide range of investigations including allegations of assault, sexual assault, workplace bullying and harassment, sexual harassment, racial and sexual discrimination.
She has conducted numerous cultural reviews and is a trained conflict management coach.  Melanie has skills and experience gained as a lawyer and academic. Prior to joining Worklogic, Melanie ran her own investigations practice.
Worklogic has extensive experience in triaging and resolving workplace conflict.  If you would like advice managing this at your workplace, you can contact Melanie for an obligation-free discussion via email or by calling (02) 9152 8663.

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