Workplace conflict – common causes and effects

Written by Jennifer Mahony – Client Director

If you ask people if they have ever experienced conflict at work, you would be hard pressed to find someone who has not. Both international and New Zealand research bears that out.  In a benchmark 2008 study of 5,000 employees in nine countries, the primary cause of conflict was interpersonal (49%), followed by workplace stress (34%) and heavy workloads (33%). New Zealand research on this shows that while interpersonal conflict is lower in comparison (13% to 49%), the primary driver of conflict was a difference of opinion on how to accomplish a work task. In another international study, 75% of respondents stated that they avoided a coworker after a disagreement and 89% of respondents said that they had experienced a workplace conflict that had escalated. 

What happens when conflict arises at work? 

Both people and organisations suffer. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the United States (EEOC), which is tasked with investigating complaints of harassment and discrimination based on sex, gender, race, and other immutable characteristics, looked at the effect of harassment on the physical and mental health of employees. The EEOC’s Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace (2016) reviewed its own data and as well as four major studies on harassment. Common psychological effects included negative mood, disordered eating, self-blame, reduced self-esteem, emotional exhaustion, anger, distrust, fear, and lowered satisfaction with life in general. 

This had knock-on effects for physical wellbeing too. Common effects included increased headaches, exhaustion, sleep problems, gastric problems, nausea, weight loss or gain, and respiratory, musculoskeletal, and cardiovascular issues. New Zealand research is comparative: the vast majority of employees involved in conflict reported experiencing anger, frustration, stress, anxiousness, loss of self-esteem and trouble sleeping.

The EEOC noted that employees experiencing harassment were not the only ones who suffered. Employees witnessing incivility or perceived mistreatment directed towards others, for example, were more likely suffer similar psychological and physical impairments. 

All of these workplace conflicts and their effects—whether harassment, workplace stress, or interpersonal conflict—often lead to a lack of productivity, decreased morale, a loss of job satisfaction, absenteeism and tardiness. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment estimates that the annual cost of workplace conflict is $440 million. 

What can be done? 

One of the best ways to address conflict at work is have effective mechanisms and channels in place to deal with it early. These mechanisms should focus on providing options that are independent of the organisation, impartial in approach, informal in discussion and resolution, completely confidential, and which support both the employee and the organisation. This approach empowers employees to safely canvas issues and build conflict capability and resilience, and provides business intelligence to organisations about unseen issues, and patterns and trends. 

FairWay Resolution Limited has recently begun providing the Employee Liaison Service (ELS) for organisations’ employees. ELS is an external service that supplements and supports an organisation’s regular channels for workplace issues. ELS does not take sides. ELS uses practitioners who are highly skilled in effective conflict resolution, including creative-problem-solving, coaching, values-based decision-making, facilitation, and mediation. ELS assists employees as often as they need and in ways that best suit the employee and the issue that the employee is dealing with. Further, the practitioner working with an organisation’s employees has knowledge of the organisation’s processes and policies, making it easier to explore issues and options with employees; and to raise patterns and issues. Sometimes people in difficult situations simply hope that something similar does not happen again to someone else in the organisation. ELS can signal those concerns in its aggregated, anonymised reports to the organisation’s leadership.

Examples of the kinds of issues that might be surfaced as part of ELS include:

  • Addressing interpersonal conflict with a colleague or manager. Employees who access ELS when they are experiencing conflict at work will work with a practitioner to help them understand what the conflict is about for them, gain insight and perspective on what might be going on for the other person (including their likely perspective on the conflict), and then putting a plan together for how to address it. Depending on the issue, the employee may feel empowered enough to address it on their own or may choose to make a formal complaint or access another formal channel offered by the organisation. 
  • New policy needs. Several ELS visitors from around the organisation and with different circumstances may share the same issue: no clear re-integration process for people returning to teams after long absences. This could be due to parental leave, secondments, or other issues. Because ELS has an overall view of the organisation, it can spot the patterns and recommend to the organisation that it should consider a formal re-integration process and policy.
  • Awareness of larger issues. Several ELS visitors from various parts of the organisation are uncomfortable with the culture of the organisation but feel that their individual experiences are too trivial or isolated to warrant formal complaints. ELS can aggregate these experiences, anonymise them, and share them with the organisation as an overall pattern that the organisation should investigate.

Benefits

Conflict resolved in this way has a number of employee and organisational benefits. 

  • Conflict “contagion” in a work group is minimised and isolated. 
  • Employees learn new ways of dealing with conflict, which they carry with them to the next experience.
  • Conflict issues are resolved earlier, which lessens the physical, psychological, and productivity impacts of conflict.
  • Organisations are able to be proactive and can demonstrate meaningfully their commitment to employee wellbeing and workplace harmony.
  • Organisations learn about hidden issues that they otherwise would not have heard about through anonymised and aggregated reporting. 
  • Workplace productivity increases in line with increased trust and confidence in the organisation. 

An essential component of workplace wellbeing is having fit for purpose avenues for employees to use in understanding and resolving workplace conflict. 

About the author

As an experienced litigator, mediator and arbitrator, Jennifer understands the importance of relationships. She is passionate about empowering people with the skills and tools they need to resolve conflict, and to rebuild relationships.

Jennifer is Client Director of FairWay’s Workplace Conflict services. Working with employers and employees has been a part of her career right from law school through to present. Her experience includes managing workplace investigations, developing tailored complaints processes, building conflict resiliency and intervening as a neutral party to help resolve workplace conflict.

If you would like to get in touch with Jennifer, please contact jennifer.mahony@fairwayresolution.com