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There is a big connection between the escalation of conflict and a decline in mental health.  This can particularly be the case in high performance environments.  One solution is to start looking at where these two issues come up in our day to day lives.  However, “mental health” and “conflict” tend to be terms that we avoid.  Unless we break down these terms into meaningful realities, they will continue to be things that we prefer to think happen to other people.  In this way, they continue to incapacitate us in our day to day working lives.

What is Mental Ill Health?

Most of us have or will experience mental ill health in ourselves or our loved ones during the course of our lives.  This can manifest in anything from anxiety, depression, chronic low self esteem and a variety of diagnosed issues.  Many of us will be able to find coping mechanisms.  These will include:

  • Awareness that mental ill health is something that can and does happen to us and others.
  • Acceptance that it exists in us and that it needs to be taken seriously
  • Action to ensure that we and others have the help and support we need.

How can Mental Ill Health aggravate conflict and vice versa

Conflict can increase stress, anxiety and depression by triggering and aggravating a number of fears.  The more fearful, stressed or anxious we become, the more difficult we find it to address the conflict situation.  We may start to avoid talking about the situation because we don’t know how to deal with it.  Alternatively, we may become more reactive and aggressive.  The longer the conflict continues to be unresolved, the more likely our mental health is to deteriorate.

When we are suffering from mental ill health, we can find it harder than normal to address conflict situations.  We may feel less able to address the situation in a balanced way.  We may also feel more overwhelmed, angry, upset or resentful in situations that would not phase us if our mental health was better.  Again, these feelings and reactions are often a trigger for behaviour that escalates the conflict..

For example:

Jo did not have any specific diagnosed mental health issues.  However, he was feeling deeply overwhelmed at work.  His Director, Anna, had told him that if he and his team did not win the upcoming pitch then redundancies were inevitable.  This generated anxiety, low level depression and general mental ill health amongst Jo and members of his team.  This was aggravated because:

  • The team needed to work 15 hour days to be ready for the pitch
  • Many of them were getting only 5 hours sleep per night
  • Most people were fearful about losing their jobs
  • Jo was worried about being responsibility for his team losing their jobs

As the situation progressed, Jo felt frustrated that he was being put in a lose-lose situation.  He found it increasingly difficult to disguise his emotions.  More than once he found himself shouting at his direct report who was “not delivering the proposal fast enough”.  He started talking about Emma to the organisation’s VP who was an old school friend of Jo.  He started to imply that he would actually do her job better and that and that she was a “poor manager”.  Jo felt ashamed about his behaviour and found himself unable to come into work the day the pitch result was announced.  Jo’s team won the pitch but two of his key direct reports left to a competitor and Jo went off on long term sick with severe anxiety.  

What we need to do about it

Despite progress in this area, we still struggle to talk about mental health no less mental ill health.  Many people tell me that they are worried that if they go off sick because of mental ill health then they will be deemed to be “pathetic”, “not able to cope” or even “a bit mad”.  On the other side of the coin I have worked with very successful professionals who have been able to recognise their own mental ill health.  They have been able to put in measures to ensure that their own self-care, working practices and environment are more healthy.  What these individuals report is that for them the early stages of anxiety or depression needs to be looked at “in a similar way as when we get flu”.  When that happens, they see it as a trigger to:

  • Acknowledge we are not feeling well (be aware);
  • Identify any help or support we need (accept the situation);
  • Put in place a “gentle” action plan to help us on the road to feeling better (take action).

As well as practising better care and self care around mental health, there are also ways to deal with conflict and its escalation.  These can ensure that we can take care of our own and others’ mental health whilst addressing the issues head on.  These include:

For individuals:

  • Identifying the areas of conflict or tension we are experiencing
  • Clarifying what we can and cannot do about the situation
  • Using people we trust as a sounding board to think the situation through
  • Being clear about what we do and do not wish to communicate
  • Identifying what we are prepared to negotiate and what we are not
  • Setting clear boundaries
  • Listening and being open to other points of views

If you want to know more about frameworks that can help you do this, we are running a Masterclass in Handling Difficult Conversations on 22 March 2018.  You can book here

For organisations

  • Providing an organisational infrastructure that is resolution focused including:
    • Peer coaching
    • Early Resolution Schemes
    • Mediation
    • Equip leaders and managers with clear skills and frameworks to manage conflict

If you want to know more, please contact me here