The Mind-Body Connection: Workplace Conflict, Stress & the Risk of Injury

Typically, workers are familiar with the dangers of heavy lifting, improper workstation set-up and unsafe working conditions. But workplace conflict, given its relationship to stress, can be equally dangerous to people's physical and emotional health. It can even increase an individual's risk of injury.

Most everyone will admit to feeling the effects of stress at work at least periodically, effects such as sleeplessness, anxiety, and depression. From our experiences in workplaces throughout North America and Australia, we have found that people are generally willing to openly acknowledge certain causes of stress as being present in their workplace, including overwork and concerns about corporate downsizing. Yet another prominent cause of stress is less often acknowledged in workplaces: conflict.

Consider this scenario that we ran into recently:

At Company X, there has been long-standing negativity between two groups of employees. The tension has escalated over time, and appears to have somehow "infected" other departments the workforce seems polarized, and the condition has proven resistant to team building initiatives and workshops. At the same time, managers are wrestling with frequent absenteeism, lowered productivity, and increasing injury rates. They hear complaints that employees just don't want to come to work anymore because they're always worried about the "poisoned" environment. At committee meetings involving HR, Health & Safety, and Operations managers, the issues of bad feelings, absenteeism, productivity and injuries keep arising in different conversations, leading to the question: "Are these issues connected in some meaningful way?"

The answer, of course, is yes. The common linkage to these problems in Company X is stress.

Interpersonal conflict in an organization results in increased stress levels for almost everyone who comes in contact with it, whether or not they are directly involved. As stress levels among workers increase, absenteeism rises and productivity suffers. And, not surprisingly, workers dealing with the effects of stress are more likely to fuel existing conflict, since their ability to objectively deal with emotionally charged situations diminishes. To add to the complexity, even intense conflict may become so ingrained in the procedures and daily interactions of an organization that it may blend into the background, so that the steps to remedy the situation may not be obvious amidst the negativity.

This cyclical nature of conflict and stress not only affects the mind, it also affects the body and contributes to injury rates. It is widely understood that putting the body under prolonged or chronic stress can lead to illnesses such as heart disease and ulcers. But the combination of conflict and long-term stress can also put the body at risk of injury. People are also less able to focus on the mechanics of their tasks, and make mistakes that cause injuries. This has prompted many organizations to look at "mind-body" programs as a comprehensive way to prevent and manage conflict, stress and injury.

To fully understand the linkages, let's look at conflict and stress separately, how they contribute to injuries, and then how to deal with all three as a whole.

Conflict

Conflict relates to the negative feelings experienced between people and groups in problematic relationships, feelings such as anxiety, fear, anger, contempt and revulsion. In the workplace, conflict is commonly associated with specific types of behavior, including those we often hear described as dysfunctional communications, authoritarian management, aggression, backstabbing, disrespect, and office politics. Whatever form the associated behaviors take, the effects of conflict are pervasive rarely does conflict only involve two people. Rather, conflict, if left unresolved, tends to both intensify and spread over time, eventually affecting whole groups of people and sometimes the entire workforce.

Most people affected by conflict describe a feedback loop. Each encounter in a conflicted relationship erodes trust and creates resentment, further fuelling the conflict and making disagreements even more likely. To appreciate this dynamic, it is useful to differentiate between a dispute and conflict.

In our work, we use the term "dispute" to refer to a disagreement over how to answer questions like "what happened?" or "what's going on now?" or "what will we do?" People have to deal with many such questions in the workplace each day, and they often have different ideas of how to answer them. A dispute, then, is a contest over the way that we will answer certain questions. Disputes are about facts.

Conflict, on the other hand, refers to the negative feelings people can come to associate with their relationships with each other. We can all think of workplace relationships that have been characterized primarily by feelings of fear, anger, contempt, or revulsion. In that situation, any interaction with the other person, whether a boss, co-worker or client, will evoke those negative feelings. A conflict is not about answering questions, or even about specific interactions. Rather, a conflict is about feelings.

Once people are truly in conflict, the facts involved in some particular dispute are not the cause of ill feeling and poor communication; they are simply the flash points around which the feelings will surface with greater intensity. We know this, because just answering the questions does not make the feelings go away, and each further interaction thereafter becomes an opportunity for the unresolved feelings to erupt in instances of problematic behavior.

Real-Life Conflict

Let's take an example that we observed in an actual workplace (names have been changed).

Choi Ping and Ted are all part of the seven-person sales team at Orange Inc., a small but profitable electronics distributor. Sales are way up, which has been great for revenues, but the company is having to deal with challenges in meeting demands for products in a timely manner due to sourcing problems. Every day the Orange Inc. sales team needs to make difficult choices as to which orders are to be given priority. Each member of the team knows that the decisions will impact on their relationship with their customers, and ultimately on their earnings: they will have to deal with irate customers unhappy with being told that they will have to wait longer than expected for delivery, some of whom will simply take their business elsewhere.

Choi Ping has a difficult relationship with Ted. Her stomach knots whenever she sees his face, and she feels herself becoming defensive and even tearful during the team's daily meetings when she sees him squaring up to push his position as to why his clients' orders should be filled. Often she finds herself either withdrawing at the meetings, disengaging from the discussions until she can no longer bottle her frustrations; then she explodes at him, sometimes barely managing to control her tears of rage and frustration. She has all sorts of justifications that she can give for her feelings reasons that she can point to in this regard: Ted is rude, pushy, self-centred and dismissive of other people's concerns. The situation is so bad that she has actually taken to calling in sick a few days a month just to keep her sanity. When she's in the office, she won't go to the coffee room if Ted is in there, and won't attend social functions.

Ted feels angry and resentful towards Choi Ping. She appears to him as irrational and unpredictable during the daily meetings: one moment it looks like she doesn't care about what decisions are being made, and the next she's stomping all over him with accusations about his being unfair and selfish. She obviously expects that her clients will be given priority over his. This seems hugely unfair, as Choi Ping isn't the hardest worker out there she's always calling in sick for no reason. He finds the whole situation embarrassing and frustrating, in large part because he doesn't know what to do about it. He'd rather not have to interact with her at all, and is thinking of quitting if the company doesn't fire her.

In our example, members of the sales team, including Choi Ping and Ted, are in dispute daily over which orders will be fulfilled. Answering the question on a given day as to which orders will be left unfulfilled is resolvable in any number of ways: by majority vote, by flip of a coin, by deference to the decision of the team leader, by talking it through until a consensus is reached, etc. But answering the questions will not take care of the conflict between Choi Ping and Ted.

This is the reason that many organizations fall short of adequately addressing conflict in their workplaces: they focus on the dispute rather than the conflict. In the case of Ted and Choi Ping, it is clear that the manager and everyone else will end up disappointed and frustrated if attempts to deal with the situation focus solely on answering the daily question of "whose clients will be left unsatisfied?"

Companies perpetuate this overemphasis on disputes at the expense of conflicts through their over-reliance on the disciplinary framework. Typically the problems of anger, resentment and frustration (and the associated reactive behaviors) become subsumed in questions over right and wrong. We translate the whole problem of relationships into one of discipline, by distilling the situation into questions like "who did it?" and "what do we do to that person?"

We can imagine that the sales manager at Orange Inc. may well default to dealing with the situation involving Choi Ping and Ted as a disciplinary matter. In that case, he or she will have to decide between the competing views that Choi Ping and Ted put forward as to who is the problem, and what should be done to teach that guilty party the right way of acting.

When managers or supervisors address relationship problems by deciding between competing complaints or stories, there are only three responses available:

  • Declare one argument to be the winner, and discipline the person(s) about whom the complaint was raised.
  • Declare no argument to be the winner, and hope that that settles it.
  • Declare that the complaint was vexatious and discipline the person(s) who made the complaint.

The problem is that none of these responses will address the underlying conflict, and all three are more likely exacerbate it by maximizing the differences and discrepancies between the disputants.

With workplace conflict, then, the challenge is to implement procedures and policies that will properly manage it rather than to exacerbate it, and to recognize how unresolved conflict leads to long-term stress in employees.

Stress

NIOSH defines job stress as "the harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources or needs of the worker." While many of us would think of "requirements" as specific job demands or tasks, it can also refer to employees dealing with ongoing conflict as part of they daily work routines. When this occurs, there is a serious disconnect between the job "requirement" of working under psychologically damaging conditions, and what workers need to perform their jobs to the best of their abilities.

When stressful situations go unresolved the body is kept at a constant state of arousal. We are all familiar with the "fight-or-flight response", which primes the body for immediate action in the face of danger by pumping up adrenalin levels, increasing heart and breathing rates, and triggering other physiological reactions, returning to normal once we have take action and dealt with the situation. Long-term stress locks the body in a continuing cycle of arousal that imposes significant wear and tear on biological systems, compromising the body's ability to repair and defend itself. As a result, the risk of illness and injury escalates.

Studies have shown that health care expenditures are nearly 50% greater for workers who report high levels of stress. While differences in individual characteristics such as personality or coping style do need to be taken into account, there are working conditions that are stressful to most people. A workplace characterized by unresolved conflict is just one of those conditions.

Workplace conflict as we outlined in the previous section can involve many different stressors:

  • Continued disagreements.
  • Poor communication, including the use of demeaning language or withholding necessary information.
  • Bullying, harassment or discrimination.
  • Escalating tensions sometimes culminating in workplace violence.

Often, managers do not observe these stressors because those involved keep the behavior relatively hidden. Other times, the stressor is so rooted in a particular management style that it is not recognized as harmful. Whatever the case, unresolved conflict can quickly lead to high levels of stress.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

When unresolved conflict is allowed to manifest into overt hostility, there is an increased risk of people suffering from a more extreme stress reaction, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD results from the psychological damage that can occur from witnessing, experiencing or participating in a highly traumatic event, in this case an incident such as workplace violence or homicide.

When a workplace is hit with a terrifying event, the immediate concern is dealing with the threat and aftermath at the specific time of the incident. Later, an added concern is dealing with how the incident affected those involved psychologically, both the employees who were directly "in the line of fire" and those who witnessed the event. But in some cases, these psychological ramifications are overlooked as a workplace attempts to return to normal.

In the context of a workplace, PTSD is not only taxing on the mental and physical health of the person suffering its effects, it is also damaging to the workplace as a whole. For the individual, symptoms of PTSD typically fall into three categories:

  • Intrusion: the person has persistent frightening thoughts and memories of the event, often referred to as "flashbacks."
  • Avoidance: the person avoids reminders of the trauma, as well as close personal ties with family, friends and colleagues. The person feels emotionally numb, sometimes unable to express emotions at all.
  • Hyper-arousal: the person acts as if he or she is constantly threatened by the trauma, becoming suddenly irritable or explosive even when not provoked.

As with chronic stress, these symptoms have a significant impact on the workplace, often leading to increased absenteeism, increased illness and injury rates, and lowered productivity.

How Conflict and Stress Contribute to Workplace Injury

According to the Encyclopedia of Occupational Safety and Health, "stressful working conditions interfere with safe work practices and set the stage for injuries at work." As discussed above, the link between conflict and stress is not difficult to define. The link between stress and injury, however, can be more ambiguous. Still, while the direct associations continue to be researched, strong evidence suggests that where stress levels are high, injury levels are also high.

There are both physiological and psychological explanations for this connection. In terms of physiological responses to stress, researchers have found that the body releases certain pro-inflammatory chemicals that can lead to tendon inflammation and swelling in the joints both risk factors for developing disorders such as Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Other findings show that work-related stressors may be associated with the physiological processes involved in low back pain and upper extremity disorders.

Psychologically, responses to stress often lead to poor safety compliance. The decline in mental focus associated with on-going stress impairs our ability to attend properly to tasks at hand, including routine actions and mechanics of motion. Workers who become distracted by anxiety, anger or exasperation may fail to follow safety regulations, exposing them to greater risk of injury. According to the International Labor Office, "of all the personal factors related to the causation of accidents, only one emerged as a common denominator: a high level of stress at the time the accident occurred."

The Case for "Mind-Body" Programs

As more and more workplaces experience situations similar to our Company X example, "mind-body" programs are emerging as comprehensive measures to deal with interrelated problems such as unresolved conflict, high absenteeism and turnover, low productivity and high stress levels and injury rates. In essence, a "mind-body" program combines such aspects as conflict prevention and management with proper ergonomics and effective back care.

Ideally, a "mind-body" program should be implemented before the conflict-stress cycle has started. One of the most critical preventative elements is workforce training that emphasizes effective communication, emotional awareness, interpersonal skills and group processes. When employees and managers are given the tools to deal with one another and complex situations effectively, the propensity to engage in conflict is lessened.

If conflict is already existing in the workplace, an effective "mind-body" program will provide the organization with procedures to address the situation and to deal with future problems in their early stages, rather than simply focusing on disputes and allowing conflict to escalate. In such cases, we advocate an appropriate conflict intervention in the first instance, followed by "facilitator" training for supervisors, managers and designated employees in proven conflict management processes so that they can take action in difficult circumstances, and can teach others how to prevent and manage conflict.

To supplement the "mind" portions of the program, effective health management and injury prevention practices also need to be in place. These include workforce training of proper lifting techniques, ergonomics and back care, as well as workstation set-up and stress reduction techniques such as breathing exercises.

Each individual workplace will have its own particular requirements of a "mind-body" program. The key is to recognize the powerful connections between the mind and the body, and to implement organizational responses that address the ways that conflict, stress and injury are interrelated.

Richard Hart and John McDonald are directors with ProActive ReSolutions, a leading provider of conflict management solutions. Susan Rock is a director with BodyLogic Health Management, providers of award-winning injury prevention and health management services. Together, they have developed "mind-body" programming that combines their two areas of expertise, allowing organizations to implement comprehensive workforce programs. For more information, visit www.proactive-resolutions.com or www.backlogic.com. Contact them at [email protected]

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