Nate Altera offers advice on dealing with conflicts at work.
The impact of chronic stress at work cannot be underestimated. The cost of staff absences, poor productivity and recruitment if chronic stress is allowed to develop is well documented.
The infringement of human rights, rudeness, injustice, an excessive amount of work, a lack of knowledge and experience in carrying out tasks, discrimination or a lack of stability can all lead to a build-up of emotions within us. These situations are perceived as a threat to life and as soon as the human brain decides there is a threat, the defence mechanism kicks in.
There are two main defence mechanisms: to run or to fight. They are both activated by adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol hormones, which prepare a person to act by switching the body to maximum capacity.
Many consequences of stress are not seen as associated with other events, because for many of us, this connection is simply not visible and not understood
If the person does not then act, stress hormones remain in the body, which continues to prepare for action until the threat is eliminated and the hormones leave the body with sweat, tears and urine. With work-related stress, we often can’t run or fight, so the brain will try to resolve the problem by constantly thinking of solutions, which will repeat the same emotional response, which in turn, reignites the defence mechanisms.
If stress is constant, it moves into the chronic stage. Noradrenaline and adrenaline redirect the bloodstream from the digestive system to the muscles and cardiovascular system. The cardiovascular system suffers from the constantly fast bloodstream and spasm of blood vessels that causes high blood pressure and can eventually lead to a heart attack or stroke. The digestive organs experience a lack of blood volume for normal operation and their cells can no longer be renewed or repaired, which will lead to diseases such as gastritis. During chronic stress, cortisol increases in the blood, which also has a bad effect on the immune system of the affected person.
Obviously, the best solution would be to organise work processes in such a way that stress is prevented or eliminated at an early stage.
Top tips for employers
- Hire a professional psychologist, or within your company, find a person who is interested in psychology and who has a genuine desire to do this.
- Appoint the chosen person to be involved in the stress prevention process and ask them to observe and collate information and findings.
- Analyse the information, address the issue and deal with it promptly.
- If this is not possible, conduct a survey among your employees to expose any stress related issues. One complete, discuss what can be done to resolve these.
Employers deal with stress in different ways. Organisations that understand stress may employ a psychologist full-time, design healthy menus for their employees to increase their resistance to stress, and create rest rooms offering a variety of games, comfortable furniture and gym equipment. Other companies seem oblivious to the existence of stress and how it affects the health of their employees.
Somewhere in the middle we find companies who acknowledge the existence of stress in the workplace, but don’t truly understand how to deal with it. Their attempts to battle stress make it look as if they are dealing with the issues, but they are not. We can label this situation as operating in a ‘parallel reality.’
If you start to notice the behaviour of your staff deteriorate, it's time to look more thoroughly at the relationship between your employees at all levels
On paper their strategies appear perfect, but if you look closely, the reality is completely different. Evidence can be seen in a high percentage of employees smoking, staff looking physically ill, poor work performance, frequent conflicts, a toxic environment, lateness and high levels of absenteeism.
Business owners, managers and health and safety professionals within these companies usually underestimate their key role in preventing, as well as handling stress levels among their staff. They simply cannot see the root cause of stress.
As health and safety specialists we know that any accident is not a simple ‘one off’ event. It is the last link in a chain of sequential events or breaches. Many consequences of stress are not seen as associated with other events, because for many of us, this connection is simply not visible and not understood. For example, with a ‘slip’ accident the chain of events can be easily tracked and prevented in the future. Stress, on the other hand, does not leave a visual trail.
Specific attention will be needed in situations where an individual with a psychological issue is involved, particularly with an antisocial personality disorder. They may appear to be kind and welcoming, but on closer inspection you will notice that, in most situations, they have a reduced ability to empathise and can be heartless to others.
People with antisocial personality types have an inability to sincerely repent for harming others. They are often sophisticated manipulators with a talent for lying, and they can easily mislead people to satisfy their own interests. These people are usually self-centred and have superficial emotional reactions. They can be pleasant to people who are not in their way. If someone crosses them, they will do everything to destroy them. At work, this could be seen as damage to a person's reputation, making their working environment extremely toxic, surreptitiously collecting information to use against them and applying emotional pressure. Unfortunately, it is not something that can be changed or easily treated because they usually can’t even admit to themselves that they have behaved this way.
Employee conflicts involving a person with an antisocial personality disorder are extremely stressful and damaging to others because they involve a wide range of antagonistic human behaviours. These antisocial behaviours may manifest themselves as anything from verbal and physical abuse to emotional blackmail. Most types of abusive behaviour can be witnessed and proven, but emotional pressure – the most commonly used by people with an antisocial personality disorder – is almost impossible to determine. For example, it is very difficult to prove that someone is spying on a colleague or that their body language makes the targeted person feel small.
Such conflicts can be peer-to-peer, but even more challenging are cases involving a manager and a member of staff. In this situation, the staff member has little power to prove they have been treated badly, causing severe stress. If this is not identified and tackled, it may eventually lead to their resignation, often without them realising they had a case for constructive dismissal.
If you start to notice the behaviour of your staff deteriorate, it's time to look more thoroughly at the relationship between your employees at all levels.
Stress can be caused by many factors and can take many forms: specific tasks, clients or personal problems that are non-work related. To resolve such issues, companies can adjust staff roles, change their duties, find them alternative positions or provide support and training.
Some stress-related problems, however, stand out. They require a more thorough and sensitive investigation. Stress-related issues between employees are often conflicts. These can exist between two people, a person and a group of people, or between groups. All conflicts can be defined in two categories: job-related conflicts and personal conflicts.
Everyone has their own ideas, beliefs and preferred ways of working. People do, on the whole, get on well with each other both voluntarily, or if they need to, in order to achieve tasks. When people like and respect each other, they are more willing to co-operate and likely to compromise. However, once employees’ best interests have been disregarded, or employees have opposing opinions, or they misunderstand each other – personal conflicts can develop. Usually, a few meetings with support from their line managers will help to resolve the conflict.
Sometimes people simply don’t like each other. Reasons for this might include their looks or style, morals or behaviours. In such cases an employer can often do little about it and the easiest option is to separate these individuals to improve their performance at work.
Occasionally, employees struggle to appreciate that a person with impairments, such as those with mental or physical disabilities, are different to them, and as such, their work performance can’t be compared with others. In this kind of scenario, the employer needs to pay thorough attention to work processes to determine any kind of discrimination against that person and to deliver a tailored training programme to the staff, providing an awareness of each individual’s capabilities.
If you spot psychopathic tendencies in the behaviour of employees involved in a 'personality conflict' you can support and advise them as follows:
- Do not react before a proper analysis of the situation is carried out
- Analyse the information they have provided before accepting it as a true fact
- Check their legal rights, their contract of employment and the company’s policies
- Do not get involved in continuous arguments and justifications for their behaviour
- Ask direct questions and provide short and direct answers (best in written form)
Moving forward together
In the past, employers felt powerless to prevent work-related stress. Today, we have so much knowledge and technology at our disposal, we can prevent work-related stress from developing in the first place.
We need to fully engage with this problem, train our managers and empower everyone at work to have the permission and the tools to deal with such situations as they arise. We must pay attention to the small things and appoint people who can actually see between the lines. This is critical in dealing with stress at work.
Nate is a continuous improvement specialist who advises companies on OSH matters and business optimisation.