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Can Unresolved Conflict Impact our Mental Health at Work?

LikeWorks’ monthly Mental Health index continues to show a decline in mental health of employees and the latest month (August 2021) indicates a decrease of 10% compared to the benchmark taken before COVID. Many organizations are now thankfully focusing on enhancing psychological health knowing that it impacts productivity, innovation and is the right thing to do to support their employees. They are seeking solutions to ensure their employees are psychologically healthy and assist them to successfully manage stress.

Employees in conflict are often under extreme stress and are unable to function as they normally would.  Employees can find themselves in these difficult situations for a few days or a few years.  They often have no awareness of the effect on their mental wellness. While supporting those in conflict I have become very aware of the impact conflict has on mental wellness.  I went in search of some research in this area and wanted to share it today.

An article in the Social Science and Medicine journal 1 examined workplace conflict resolution and the health of employees in an industrial company.  In this paper, the authors analysed the relationship between conflict management in the workplace and self-reported measures of stress, poor general health, exhaustion and sickness, and absence due to overstrain or fatigue.  Their analyses revealed that those who reported that workplace differences were resolved through discussion are least likely to experience these negative outcomes. The increased stress levels of those who reported that ‘no attempts’ were made to resolve the conflict was very similar to those who indicated differences were resolved through ‘use of authority’.   The authors concluded that workplace conflict resolution is important in the physical and mental health of employees in addition to traditional psychosocial work environment risk factors.

Another publication in the International Journal of Conflict Management2 investigated “Conflict at work and individual well-being”.  The authors found that conflict theory and research had previously largely ignored the possible relationships between conflict at work, and individual health, well being, and job satisfaction.  They presented a model that argued that poor health and well being can trigger conflict in the workplace and reduce the extent to which conflict is managed in a constructive, problem solving way. They proposed that conflict, especially when managed poorly, can have negative long-term consequences for individual health and well being, producing psychosomatic complaints and feelings of burnout. They reviewed research evidence and concluded, among other things, that the model is more likely to hold up when conflict involves relationships and socio-emotional, rather than task related issues.

Alberta Occupational Health and Safety laws indicate that organizations need to address psychological hazards. They define psychological hazard as a situation, condition or thing that may affect the mental health of the worker and may result in physical effects by overwhelming individual coping mechanisms and impacting the worker’s ability to work in a healthy and safe manner. Employers must address conflict early and support employees to resolve conflict effectively.  Conflict resolution best practices include assessments, training, mediation, workplace restoration, conflict coaching, peer mediation, Ombuds/Respectful Workplace/Safe Disclosure Office.  Support for employees in conflict will increase their own mental wellness, reduce sick times, costs and ensure the provision of a psychologically healthy workplace.

  1. Social Science & Medicine 63 (2006)- Workplace conflict resolution and the health of employees in the Swedish and Finnish units of an industrial company; Hyde, Jappinen, Theorell, and Oxenstierna in 2000
  2. International Journal of Conflict Management 15(1):6-26 (2004) – Conflict at Work and individual well-being; De Dreu, Van Dierendonck and Dijkstra

The Workplace Fairness Institute works to support organizations to be proactive with conflict through assessments, Ombuds functions and other services to ensure a psychologically healthy workplace.

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