Workplace conflicts are commonly defined as interpersonal interactions characterized by tension, either between colleagues or between superiors and employees. The tension arises due to ongoing or unresolved differences that may be real or perceived.
Studies on the role of conflict in short supply
Already more than 20 years ago, interpersonal conflicts were discussed as one of the most important stressors in the workplace that can negatively affect employees’ physical and mental health.
– We know that psychological and social factors in the work environment may influence the risk of psychological problems and musculoskeletal problems, which are the two most important causes of long-term sickness absence. Nevertheless, we have limited knowledge about the role played by specific stressor factors. In addition, studies that specifically investigate the connection between conflicts in the workplace and the level of sickness absence are in short supply, says Tom Sterud, researcher at STAMI.
The present study aimed to fill this gap in the literature by investigating possible associations between self-reported workplace conflicts and the risk of subsequent physician-certified sick leave in a representative sample of the general working population.
– As far as we know, this is the first study to investigate this connection, says Sterud.
The study is based on data from The Level of Living Survey on Working Conditions by Statistics Norway, an ongoing representative survey of Norwegian residents aged 18–66 years, where Statistics Norway collects data every three years. A strength of the study is the longitudinal element, given that it includes data from three consecutive surveys.
Conflicts with superiors poses a risk
The study investigated the role of unpleasant conflicts with colleagues and superiors respectively, as risk factors for physician-certified sick leave. In the analysis, the researchers adjusted for known variables such as gender, age, level of education and occupation.
– We found a consistent connection between conflict with superiors and a subsequent higher level of physician-certified sick leave. However, conflicts with colleagues were not associated with the same pronounced risk of sickness absence, Sterud states.
This is consistent with previous findings on how the employee’s experience of managerial behaviour may have an impact on sick leave.
– Persistent or repeated conflicts with superiors can entail significant costs for employees and hinder or threaten important needs and goals, such as opportunities for professional development and career possibilities. Thus, it seems likely that conflicts with superiors can be experienced as burdensome and over time lead to stress-related emotional reactions, Sterud points out.
– In comparison, conflicts with colleagues may not, to the same extent, pose a threat to one’s professional work role. This provides a possible explanation for the weaker and less consistent results of conflict with colleagues, compared to conflict with superiors, in the present study.
Seeing as this type of conflict is widespread (overall, the incidence of employees who report conflict with either a manager or a colleague is 13 percent), the total impact on sickness absence in the general working population is not insignificant, according to Sterud.
– The results indicate that workplace conflicts affect sick leave. Early identification and routines to prevent and handle workplace conflicts are therefore important, the researcher emphasizes.
From a public health perspective, there is a need for more research-based knowledge on how to succeed in preventing and managing conflicts in the workplace, the researchers behind the study points out. This knowledge will enable better initiatives to reduce or avoid the negative effects tof conflicts in the workplace on employees’ well-being and health.