18 January 2006

Is conflict in the workplace making you ill?

It is Sunday night and you simply cannot face the coming working week. You feel nervous, irritable, tired and agitated.

It is Sunday night and you simply cannot face the coming working week. You feel nervous, irritable, tired and agitated. You know that you will have difficulty sleeping tonight while you lie there mulling over the confrontations and injustices of the past week. Who did what, who saw what, who said what, who fired whom.

You fantasise over what you would like to say to the boss and how you would like to phrase your letter of resignation. Or, in a really bad case, where you would like to dump the body.

All places of work, or all places where two or more gather, for that matter, have conflict potential. The way a company is managed and how employees deal with change, work negotiations, stress and personal differences all determine whether a work environment is healthy or anxiety inducing.

Absenteeism from work, owing to stress-related illnesses such as colds, headaches, flu, skin disorders and general infections, are costing South African companies millions every year. While viruses cause many of these diseases, people who are suffering from stress have decreased immunity. This makes them more susceptible to viruses in general and they also tend to be affected more severely when they do get ill.

Managers need to be consistent, transparent and fair to their employees in order to minimise conflict in the workplace. Nothing causes as much conflict as inconsistency. This pits the different employees against each other, rather than getting them to work together as a team.

But what can you do if the thought of going to work is making you ill? Unless you are in a managerial position that allows you to take charge of the situation and make the necessary changes, your involvement will remain largely reactive. But even within these constraints there are things you can do to minimise the conflict you experience at work.

  • Take an objective look at the situation or people causing the conflict. If there is a reasonable chance of the problems being solved, learn to be patient and ride out the storm.
  • If, you are dealing with personality disorders or insoluble financial crises, however, jack up your CV and start looking out for something else.
  • Look after your health to reduce the stress levels and increase your immunity. Go for walks and eat healthy foods. Guard against stress-induced overeating.
  • Investigate your options. If you think an official complaint might make a difference, lay one. Speak to other colleagues and sound them out before you do this. If you are the only one feeling this way, you might be the one causing the problem. Avoid making an official complaint unless there really is no chance of things righting themselves.
  • Remember that many people who act aggressively feel threatened. Bite your tongue and try kindness and patience rather than responding with aggression.
  • Try to avoid getting involved in office politics. These can get very vicious and ultimately no one emerges victorious from these battles. Even the people who get the promotions ultimately end up getting no co-operation from their subordinates as a result of the tactics they resorted to in order to get to the top.
  • Be honest. If you think someone has a personal problem with you or your work, ask them directly. It might be a painful, but enlightening experience to listen to what they have to say.
  • Accept that colleagues can sometimes be difficult as a result of other problems in their lives – their behaviour might have nothing at all to do with you. If a problem does not originate with you, the solution also does not lie with you.
  • Guard against increased smoking and drinking to relieve the stress you are feeling.
  • Speak out about injustice if it is really necessary, but generally don’t involve yourself in other people’s conflicts.
  • If a boss or a colleague is behaving in a completely unacceptable and unprofessional manner it is quite possible that they will be replaced, retired or retrenched without your having to interfere at all.
  • If you are constantly getting ill, go for a check-up. If nothing substantial appears to be the matter with you, it might be time for a job change

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