Expert article of Marco Cereghetti, May 2021

Conflicts in the workplace – tension between employees and their managers

Conflicts in the workplace is often the cause of illness-related absenteeism. This applies in particular when workplace conflicts lead to mental illness. Trouble between employees and their managers raise many questions and makes reintegration a particular challenge. It is undoubtedly in the interest of all concerned to avoid workplace conflicts as far as possible, or at least to handle such situations in a constructive way.

Around three out of four absences from work are due to illness or accident. When it comes to long-term absences due to illness, an increase in psychological cases has been observed for some years now. Doctors often diagnose sufferers with burnout, exhaustion depression or adjustment disorder. On closer inspection, it becomes noticeable that most of these cases are influenced or even caused by conflict between employees and their managers.

Sometimes, it is a difference of opinion about an assignment or a planned reorganisation, while at other times, it is a personal problem that leads to conflicts between employees and their managers. The flames are often fanned by competitive thinking, envy or resentment. All conflicts have one thing in common – managers who have reached their limits!

Successful leadership includes the ability to approach conflicts in a constructive and solution-oriented manner. Resolving conflicts is a core task of every manager. It does not matter who is right, or who has the power to make decisions. It is simply a question of how conflicts are approached, carried out and resolved. Ultimately, it is important to prevent employees from needing sick leave and staying away from work. Unresolved conflicts in the workplace affect the atmosphere and have a negative impact on the mood of all employees. And if working time is lost, the economic consequences for the company are considerable. Managers must take decisive action to counteract this.

While employees and managers may disagree on certain issues, it is nevertheless essential for managers to take their employees seriously and listen to them despite the different hierarchical levels. Even if conflicts cannot be dealt with at eye level due to hierarchical relationships, they should be addressed constructively. When managers simply impose their will, or worse, bend and push employees in the direction and shape they want, it can be demoralising and emotionally draining. Employees feel stressed in such situations, and their motivation, self-confidence and performance decline, meaning that subsequent conflicts with the manager are inevitable.

To prevent this from happening, and to prevent conflicts with employees, managers should observe the following leadership principles:

1. Committed leadership
Commitment creates clarity and trust. Clear rules that apply equally to everyone ensure that employees know where they stand with their managers. What is valid today should also remain relevant tomorrow and the day after. Commitment also means that managers do not put off making decisions. Managers who are always vague and avoid making decisions are non-committal, they unsettle or even annoy their employees. Better a justified, negative decision than no decision at all. Tasks and measures that are as clearly defined and specific as possible help managers to demonstrate committed leadership.

2. Trust-based leadership
Managers who place a high degree of trust in their employees encourage them to act, and encourage a sense of responsibility. Agility and good teamwork are also promoted. The manager becomes a coach, who provides selective input and orientation only. Managers, on the other hand, who control everything and want to do everything themselves for fear of making mistakes, deprive employees of trust and fuel conflict.

3. Appreciative leadership
Managers can express praise, appreciation and recognition in different ways. Not every employee needs the same amount of recognition or the same form of appreciation, but it is good for all employees to receive praise. However, if employees feel that their performance is not recognised and always taken for granted, this quickly leads to resentment and conflict. And by the way, appreciation is not expressed through salary increases only – thanks and praise for the work done are also part of the process.

4. Relationship-based leadership
Of course, managers focus primarily on economic targets in their work and on the corporate goals they aim to achieve with their teams. Here, there is a significant risk of employees being instrumentalised and not finding space for their problems or for personal discussions. But leadership is also relationship work. Employees want empathetic managers who take them seriously and listen to their concerns. They appreciate it when managers are interested not only in work performance but also in them personally. There are of course limits, as too much closeness and empathy are not conducive to an effective leadership relationship. It is important to find a healthy balance between closeness and distance when it comes to keeping conflict at bay.

Wherever people act together, conflicts can never be completely avoided. And this also applies to collaboration between managers and their employees. Once a basis for positive conflict management has been established, conflicts can always provide an opportunity for personal and organisational development.

Mediation can be helpful in cases of escalation in conflict between managers and their employees. The role of mediator can be performed by internal employees with appropriate training from the HR department or employee committee, as well as by external experts from occupational social counselling or care management. Mediation can often help to prevent escalations or even sick leave, and when it comes to finding viable solutions.

If an unresolved conflict in the workplace has already led to employees being absent from work on sick leave, however, the involvement of a case manager can be helpful. Case managers mediate between the parties involved, help to resolve the conflict and ultimately enable the employee to retain their job. If this is not possible, however, case managers can provide valuable assistance in matters of labour law and insurance. 


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Marco Cereghetti
Corporate Health & Case Manager elipsLife CH/LI

Expert article of Marco Cereghetti «Conflicts in the workplace»