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Counting the cost of conflict in the health sector

Posted by Ann Caluori | Fri, 14/05/2021 - 12:16


 Guest blog by Adrian Wakeling, Senior Policy Adviser, Acas


 A billion pounds. Ten billion. Or what about £28.5 billion? There, I’ve got your attention. Conflict costs the UK £28.5   billion a year – or £1,000 for each employee. This includes everything from a disagreement with a colleague or   manager that makes   you less productive, to more formal grievances or disciplinary procedures.


 I believe that our new report, ‘Estimating the costs of workplace conflict’, is a wake-up call for all organisations because a lot of conflict is preventable. Like SOM, Acas places a big emphasis on preventing problems from arising, as opposed to resolving them when they do. ‘Prevention not cure’ is a motto that works equally well for health and interpersonal issues alike.


We need to address three questions about conflict at work: why is it so important now; how is it relevant to where I work; and what can be done to improve how we deal with it?


Conflict: why is it so important now?

A quick look at the data behind the helpline service we offer, shows that a degree of conflict has been put on hold during the lockdowns. This impression is backed up by research by Ricard Saundry, on the impact that the pandemic has had on the NHS. The team ethos seems to be waning somewhat and individual disputes are beginning to resurface again. As the report observes: “HR practitioners were particularly concerned that… returning to some normality would be extremely challenging, with the potential for conflict.”


One of the key recommendations from the new analysis we have done, is that conflict should be taken seriously at senior management level. After all, conflict essentially tells you a story about an important part of someone’s life. We need to listen to these stories.   


Conflict: how is it relevant to where I work?

Do you know anyone who has resigned, who has become less motivated or productive, who is involved in a grievance? If so, you are in quite a crowd. Close to 10 million people experience conflict every year and CIPD survey data shows that, of these, 56% suffer stress, anxiety and/or depression as a result. Some of the other headline findings are also startling. As a result of conflict:

  • Nearly half a million people resign each year at a cost of £11.9 billion
  • Over 300,000 people are dismissed following disciplinary action at a cost of £10.5 billion
  • Informal action – often just having a chat with your line manager or HR – is comparatively cheap, at £0.12 billion.

Costs escalate the longer you leave a dispute. What workplace can afford that?


Conflict: what can be done to improve how we deal with it? 

The researchers, Professor Richard Saundry (Sheffield University) and Peter Urwin (Westminster University), have highlighted three important implications for the way we manage, and learn from, conflict at work:

  1. Effective and early resolution works best but this needs ‘conflict competence’ to be nurtured in managers – in other words the ability to have often difficult conversations
  2. Organisations need to work harder at repairing relationships as replacing staff is very expensive and time-consuming
  3. It helps to focus on learning from problems at work rather than automatically apportioning blame. Of course, this doesn’t mean that everyone shouldn’t have an effective means of redress.

Occupational health professionals have a key role to play in reducing the costs of conflict, particularly by offering advice to managers. They can help to bridge the gap between individual experience and what can often be seen as ‘the system’.