The Link Between Mental Health and Workplace Conflict


He caught himself in the moment, and he couldn’t believe what he was doing.

It had been a tough few months for Dave. His high-flying wife had been made redundant; his best friend had taken his own life and his father had been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.

Things weren’t great at work either, but he couldn’t let the side down by calling in sick. So, he papered over the cracks, pretending everything was ok. That’s life, he could handle it.

When he found himself dragging a 13-year-old shoplifter back to the store by his neck, Dave realised he had lost control. He had taken the theft personally and reacted emotionally rather than respondingrationally.

But how did things get so bad? It turns out that trying to squeeze two pints worth of stress into a one-pint glass has disastrous effects on our decision making and behaviour, especially when conflict is involved. And statistics tell us Dave is not alone.

The statistics paint a worrying picture:

The Health and Safety Executive tell us that 54% of working days lost are down to Stress, Anxiety and Depression. Among the main reasons for this absence are; a perceived lack of managerial support; excessive workload and having to manage aggression or violence from customers. There were 640,000 recorded incidents of violence at work 2017/18.

Most would read ‘Provide employees with good working conditions’ in the ‘Thriving at Work’ Core Standards and think they have that covered. This is the UK after all. We have Occy Health, HR and Health and Safety. It’s a million miles away from sweat shops and child chimney sweeps.

While most understand that ‘good working conditions’ includes protection from abuse, threats and conflict, the ability to handle these situations is often left to the individual, ‘it’s just part of the job’.

Our attitude when dealing with staff performance, complaints, angry service users or customers and shoplifters, can have a huge impact on the outcome.

In the space between the stimulus (like a complaint or challenging comment) and our response, we have a choice about what happens next. And stress has a huge impact on that space.

Why do normally reasonable, rational and logical people react emotionally?  

In his book “Thinking Fast and Slow”, Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman explains that humans utilise two very different modes of thought: “System 1” and “System 2”.

System 1 is automatic, emotional and out of our conscious control. It’s the part that gets out of its tree when a car cuts us up or the ref makes a bad decision. The Amygdala triggers our fight flight response, like a smoke alarm going off when it detects smoke.

System 2 is rational, deliberate and responsible for decision making. It was in control when you learned to drive or speak French. It is the watchtower that intervenes to regulate the automatic emotional response:  ‘Pack it in smoke alarm, it’s just the toaster”.

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This stress response is designed to keep us safe. But the threats we face in a modern society are somewhat different to those they were originally intended to protect against.

We are not stalked by vicious predators anymore- but the scanner is still there. New threats include the tone of that last email; the dog walker who doesn’t pick up after their dog; or the guy who just pushed to the front of the queue.

‘Stress’ disengages the brain cells in the watchtower, meaning our ability to think logically and rationally becomes impaired. In short, we make bad emotionallybased decisions. We ‘react’ rather than ‘respond’. We come out swinging. If you’ve ever regretted what you said after an argument with your other half, you will know what I mean.

Crucially, the brain region most involved in feeling afraid and anxious is most involved in generating aggression. -Robert Sapolsky.

The more stressed you are the worse it gets

‘Stress’ doesn’t keep to neat little boxes for “work” and “home”. Mortgage payments, illness, caring for a loved one and relationship breakdowns merge with high workload, antisocial hours and low levels of control.

Prolonged periods of stress like Dave’s will continuously trigger the release of fight flight substances, which is bad for us. Too much cortisol for example, suppresses your immune system, increases your blood pressure and blood sugar levels, contributes to obesity and diabetes. The amygdala physically increases in size and sensitivity, meaning it is more easily triggered.

It is always easy, with the benefit of hindsight, to sit and criticise decisions like Dave’s made in the heat of the moment. If fault is to be found, it usually rests on the individual’s decision-making process, or lack thereof.

Dave: Yes, you’re right, hands up…my fault. My actions had nothing to do with the fact that, on top of all the personal stuff I have going on, you expect me to do the work that 3 people used to do. I have no control over my career prospects and haven’t had a pay rise in years. I hardly see my family because of the shift pattern which causes constant arguments at home. Oh, and our ‘customer is always right’ approach means I’m regularly verbally abused and sometimes even physically assaulted. My fault really.  

Dave’s actions were so much more than a split-second lapse in judgement. The amount of stress in his system in the hours, days, weeks and months before also had a huge impact. Little is said about the factors (like work conditions and home life) that contributed to that stress in the first place.

So, what can we do about it?

As an individual, there are things we can do to increase the space between stimulus (being shouted at) and our response. Here’s one we call the Self Scan.

Step 1: What am I thinking?

What are your honest thoughts about the situation?

For example: meeting a challenging client- I’m thinking that I don’t really want to do this. I would rather be somewhere else because I know it’s going to be a battle, and I don’t like conflict.

Step 2: What am I Feeling?

What emotions – how does my body feel?

I’m nervous because I know there may be heightened emotions and possibly conflict or aggression. My tummy feels fluttery, my neck muscles are tense and I’m getting a headache. Not sure if I’ve drank enough water and my back is killing me.

Step 3: What can I do?

About those unhelpful thoughts/feelings? What do I usually do in this situation? Can I do something different?

We usually meet in a small windowless office, and it always ends up in a battle. What if we go somewhere else, perhaps outside where we could walk and talk? A morning coffee meeting?

In conclusion…

Even though work may not have been the only cause of stress in this person’s life, work will almost certainly have to deal with the consequences, like poor performance, a disruptive influence on the team, absenteeism and presenteeism.

Organisations cannot be expected to control what goes on in employees’ personal lives. They can, however, be more proactive in providing ‘good work conditions’ and nurture an environment where situations like Dave’s are less likely to happen.

About Author

Terry Streather is Director and Head of Training with Oakwood Training. He is a mental health and personal safety expert, with extensive experience as both a frontline practitioner and trainer. Terry is helping some of the UK’s largest companies look after the mental wellbeing and personal safety of their employees. He’s passionate about helping companies create a safer, healthier workplace, by placing wellbeing at the very core of what they do. Not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it makes good business sense. Happy, safe employees make better employees.


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