The Human Cost of Conflict at Work: The Link with Mental Health and Practical Tips

A new report from Acas finds that conflict at work costs the UK £28.5 billion a year, which equates to £1000 for every employee. What’s this got to do with mental health, I hear you ask? The way our minds (and most organisational cultures) work, is to control issues by compartmentalising them. Surely, conflict goes in one pigeonhole and mental health in another?

How does conflict feel?

Wrong, of course. The read-across from conflict to mental wellbeing is huge.

Think about it for a moment. How does it feel to fall out with a colleague or manager; to be treated unfairly or discriminated against; to try to talk to someone at work who is uncomfortable listening to your problems; to be part of an internal investigation; to have to disclose more than you may want to about very personal issues; to carry around a sense of guilt at letting people down; to wait for a problem to be resolved without any certainty of what the future might hold?

It’s making me feel anxious just thinking about these scenarios. Indeed, CIPD survey data confirms that conflict has a significant impact on our mental health – with 56% of employees reporting stress, anxiety and/or depression as a result of conflict. Our analysis breaks down the costs of conflict, but let’s remember that behind every single pound is a human story:

  • Resignations. These can occur at any stage. Sometimes a manager might not realise there is even a problem; but they may also be the result of a stressful internal dispute. Total cost: £11.9 billion
  • Sickness absence. We know from all the surveys that stress is an unfortunate chart topper when it comes to the cause of absence. Total cost: £2.2 billion
  • Presenteeism. This is a phenomenon that has almost crept up on many of us but we have recently started to take note. It means coming to work despite illness, injury, anxiety, etc., often resulting in reduced productivity.….. Total cost: £0.59 billion

Why is managing conflict more important than ever?

The mental health impact of the pandemic has been likened to a tsunami by the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Although it’s fair to say that mental health as an issue has been mainstreamed, because everyone has become aware of heightened levels of stress and anxiety; some groups will need looking after more than others:

  • Front line staff in the health and care sectors may be particularly vulnerable. Research on the impact the pandemic has had on the NHS, shows that conflict is no longer on hold. Employees, many of whom are close to burnout, are reflecting on what they’ve been through and what they expect from work. Latent conflict may start to become more visible.
  • It may be a mad world but it’s also an unfair world. Mental wellbeing is strongly influenced by many socio-economic factors, so it is perhaps unsurprising that the shadow pandemic has hit some groups more than others. The health crisis has also had a disproportionate impact on the young, women and those with caring responsibilities – a recent report from the Resolution Foundation, for example, found that mothers were twice as likely as fathers to reduce their hours in order to care for children.

So what can managers do to reduce conflict and promote positive wellbeing at work? My three top tips are:


  1. Have meaningful conversations. This can be tricky when staff are working remotely, but genuine rapport breeds openness and trust. At Acas, we have been training our managers how to pick up the signs of distress online.
  2. Intervene as soon as possible. Our research shows that informal interventions – having a quiet word – are far cheaper than going down the formal procedural route. You have nothing to lose!
  3. Don’t just manage conflict, be informed by it. Not all conflict is bad; it can be a driver for innovation and creativity and help to highlight deeper issues that need addressing, particularly around diversity and fairness.


You might also be interested in this free to attend Make A Difference webinar which is sponsored by Acas: “Supporting the health and wellbeing of colleagues through change and uncertainty as we navigate the new normal” which is taking place on Tuesday 8 June from 10.30am – 12.00pm. You can find out more and register here

Other articles you might be interested in:

Joined at the Hip: Conflict and Mental Health

“You Own It!”: Why Conflict and Conflict Resolution go Hand in Hand with Core Standards of Mental Health and Wellbeing

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The Link Between Mental Health and Workplace Conflict




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