Shocking cost of workplace conflict - Graham Boyack

In May ACAS launched a report on the costs of workplace conflict in the UK. The figures were quite shocking, the headline being that workplace conflict costs the UK £28.5 billion per year or £1000 per employee.

Graham Boyack, Director, Scottish Mediation
Graham Boyack, Director, Scottish Mediation

Beyond the money headlines it is important to understand that the impact is not just financial with employees more likely to experience stress, anxiety and depression as a result. When we’re talking about 10 million people, that has an impact on society as a whole.

Drilling down into the findings one of the highest costs relates to the costs around dismissal, which often comes after a period of extended sickness.

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And all of this was surveyed before we had experienced Covid-19 and its impacts.

investment in early resolution is important for both companies and employees. . Picture: Adobe Stock
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You’d think that with the above information the report was depressing and simply a bearer of well researched bad news. To their credit, however, ACAS have focussed on what organisations can do to change the narrative and make things better in organisations when conflict arises.

There are three primary areas where organisations can reduce their cost of conflict. The first is to invest in early resolution. The second is to act early to repair relationships and on poor performance. The third is to rebalance their current reliance on formal procedures including courts and tribunals.

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For Scottish Mediation, the report relates well to the experience of mediators working with organisations across Scotland. One of mediators’ biggest frustrations is being brought in at a point where people have been in formal processes for months and have still not had an open and honest conversation on what the conflict is about and how it might be resolved. That’s why investment in early resolution is so important. Being able to have an early conversation can often allow for a better understanding of the underlying issues which are driving a dispute but aren’t always on the surface. In such a mediated conversation space is created to allow reflection on what might happen next and the options that could be available for resolution. To support early resolution organisations can adopt mediation as part of their procedures and support that through either in-house mediators or external support.

Acting early to repair relationships and on poor performance is easier to do if it is part of an organisations’ procedures but, critically, is better supported if the people leading those conversations are properly skilled in doing so. Those could be coaching skills, mediation skills or any skills using similar approaches. Scottish Mediation delivers mediation skills seminars and when explained, people pick them up very quickly and often reflect that they wish they’d had them sooner.

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The fact that many disputes reaching employment tribunals and courts resolve in mediation suggests to me that not only is mediation effective, but also that its use earlier in disputes would be beneficial. I think one of the key barriers to doing so is the over-reliance on the formal court and tribunal processes outlined in the report. The difficulty with resolution at such a late stage is that it is also likely to mean people leaving their organisation and the loss of experience and knowledge in addition to the costs of getting there.

Looking to the future I take heart from three key messages from ACAS’s Chief Executive Susan Clews in her foreword to the report. They were to invest in conflict competence, that the time to intervene is before official procedures kick in and that not all conflict is bad - that handled well it can be a positive creative force for organisational change.

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Scottish Mediation has organised a Mediation Charter that supports what the ACAS report is calling for. If you’d like to sign up or get more information it’s on our website

Graham Boyack Director, Scottish Mediation



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