Causing a public nuisance

Apparently civil servants are more likely than anyone else to beat up their work colleagues...

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Public sector workers are much more likely to get caught up in workplace conflict than their private sector counterparts, according to a new study by business psychologists OPP and the CIPD. Over one-third of them are apparently embroiled in office warfare on a regular basis, compared to about a fifth of private sector types. And if stress levels are high already, they’re likely to get even worse now the government has started buying up banks and cutting civil service jobs…

To be fair, it’s not only public sector workers who are getting stroppy with each other. Across the UK, every employee apparently spends an average of two hours a week dealing with some kind of workplace conflict (we hope this is making your office seem harmonious by comparison). That’s 370m working days between us –  based on the spurious financial equivalence that press releases are obliged to employ at this juncture, that means these conflicts are costing UK plc more than £24bn a year. And that presumably doesn’t include the time lost to absenteeism, or the cost of replacing someone who gets fired.

There were various explanations proffered for these warring workers. About half of those surveyed said personality clashes or rampant egos were to blame, while 34% ascribed it to stress, and 33% suggested it was down to the heavy workload (not the civil servants, presumably). But more than anything, employees felt workplace conflict was largely a result of bad management. According to the survey, almost half of respondents think their managers need to act faster to nip potential arguments in the bud. And they seem to agree: 23% admit they don’t manage conflict well (this proportion is even higher in the public sector).

‘Conflict is an inevitable part of the workplace and can be very damaging and costly if not managed properly,’ says the CIPD’s Linda Holbeche. ‘Managers must be able to identify the early signs of conflict and intervene and diffuse situations before they escalate if teams are to work productively and harmoniously.’ The answer, she argues, is more training for your senior team, to make sure they can identify trouble before it happens (a bit like being in MI5, perhaps).

This is hardly a new problem. But as the economy heads south, it’s only going to get worse. ‘Businesses could see steep rises in conflict as workloads increase, budgets shrink and stress levels rise,’ OPP boss Robert McHenry points out sagely. Maybe it’s time to send your managers for training – or to start piping soothing mood music through the office...


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