Alison Coleman on managing conflict and dealing with stress

Conflict in the workplace caused by anger and frustration is more common than most people might think. According to research from occupational health provider Health Assured, nearly nine out of 10 (86%) workers regularly vent their anger and frustration at their co-workers.

Personality clashes and stressful work environments can have a negative effect on personal wellbeing and emotional health, so perhaps a more worrying research finding was that 79% of employers admitted they found it difficult to deal with staff who struggle to control their temper. But aggression in the workplace will not take care of itself.  Joan Kingsley, author of ‘The Fear-Free Organisation: Vital Insights from Neuroscience to Transform your Business Culture’, says it is vital to clarify and communicate behaviours that are unacceptable.

She says: “Conflict resolution conversations facilitated by a team leader will uncover problems and result in positive solutions.  It is constructive to listen and acknowledge opposing ideas and points of view. If you are working with someone who has high levels of stress or anxiety, try to identify the source.  If there is a personal problem then encourage the individual to seek professional help. If the stress or anxieties are work-related then work out strategies that will lead to a safer, calmer, fear-free work environment.”

Workplace bullying

When conflict and stress is the result of bullying by a member of staff, the leader or manager dealing with it should be prepared for a difficult conversation. “Start by getting the victim to gather evidence in the form of diary entries chronicling every instance of bullying,” advises Kingsley. “Confront the bully calmly, clearly and safely, make it known there is zero tolerance for aggression, and stick to facts. Don’t get side tracked by emotional outbursts, and be prepared to walk away if things get too heated.”

Dealing with the complexity that people bring can also take its toll on managers and leaders. This can become an underlying cause of conflict and stress. Working with people is the principle work that managers do, and it is the people component that generates the stress and can lead to burn-out syndrome, says Tim Taylor, director of leadership development firm Making Great Leaders. He explains: “The reaction may often be to depersonalise, so that individuals in their team become ‘them’. They may approach the problem in an unfeeling or even callous manner. Then the blaming starts and conflict rises, a type of conflict that is destructive and unhealthy because it is emotionally confusing.”

In order to deal with stress more effectively, managers have to acknowledge and recognise that the value they bring to the business is in their dealings with people. They also need to develop their self-awareness about the triggers and behaviour patterns that lead them to that first state of being emotionally over-extended. Stress in the workplace has serious consequences for the welfare of employees and ultimately for overall business, as research has shown clear links between stress and poor sickness absence and staff retention rates.

People taking more ‘sick’ days than usual, taking longer to complete routine tasks or producing lower quality work, and strained working relationships between employees, are all signs of a workforce under pressure, and potentially affected by stress. In recognising or anticipating signs of elevated levels of stress, managers should encourage staff to talk openly about stress and conflict, and the challenges and barriers that exist within teams and outside them.

These conversations should be constructive, working together to share experiences and explore improvements that alleviate unnecessary stress and bring everyone closer to achieving their goals. The key for managers is to try and stay one step ahead on any issues that might be brewing, says Jean Martin, talent solutions architect at business insights company CEB . “As these conversations relate to a direct report’s performance, they are likely to be sensitive and emotional so prepare your script or questions and consult HR in advance for advice and guidance,” she says.

There are a number of courses available on managing stress and wellbeing in the workplace that will equip managers with the tools they need to be comfortable in having open conversations with their team members. Many companies are turning to mindfulness in the workplace as a way of tuning out the noise of the busy working day to concentrate on the tasks at hand. In turn this helps to create a more harmonious and therefore less stressful work environment.

Steve Braund, marketing manager at  Develop Training  which works with a number of organisations in this area, says: “Part of what we teach is the technique of staying in regular contact with employees, giving them the right levels of support.  Ultimately it’s the quality of support that can not only help to counter the effects of stress but encourage employees to flourish in their roles for the benefit of themselves and the business.”