Health & Safety is an ongoing concern for businesses and employers. Responsible employers spend a considerable amount on preparing their workplaces to be safe and healthy for not only workers but anyone who may enter the worksite – this includes extensive training on the safe operation of machinery and the avoidance of other potential hazards.

There is a safety hazard, however, that is not only not often spoken of, but it is even rarer to find any training for it. That hazard is the human factor. This may sound counterintuitive given all the above, after all, it is human beings that are being trained in the safe operation of machinery, evacuation plans, first aid and other safety procedures. Whereas accidents cannot be planned, they can be planned for, the human element involved in the cause of the accidents are much harder to predict.

No matter how intense and effective the training, there is one factor that can, and does so routinely, override all. That factor is the emotional reaction to workplace conflict. Conflict, as it is related to stress, can be as dangerous to the health and safety of workers as a lack of training. It can even increase the risk of injury to workers. While most people are generally willing to openly acknowledge the causes of certain stress; lack of sleep, anxiety, or depression for example, very few would speak up about workplace conflict as a stressor for fear of repercussions or victimization.

Workplace conflict may be due to a single event, or it may be due to a pervasive toxic work environment. A toxic, or unhealthy working environment, can be characterised by ineffective or negative communication, unprofessional behaviour and vindictive practices and policies.

“As possibly the most costly of business challenges, toxic work environments have a devastating effect on not only the mental and physical health and well-being of the employees, but also on the productivity of the employees and their output, as well as on the profitability of the company.” (Toxic work environment, Waymans HR Solutions, 06 August 2020)

The nature of conflicts that are not appropriately resolved (leaving one party angry), is that the resultant anger causes a reduction in cognitive ability and the accurate processing of external indicators. This means that a worker may judge a situation to be less dangerous than it is and are more likely to take risky chances which may lead to unfortunate accidents and injury. In short: Angry people make risky decisions based on unrealistic risk assessments.

Angry people make risky decisions based on unrealistic risk assessments.

This has prompted many organisations and businesses to adopt a conflict resolution strategy and training programme as part of their Health & Safety programme. As long-term stress, as in the case of a toxic work environment, is also a significant contributor to unsafe workplace behaviour as well as hidden hazard risk – for example stress increases the bodies’ inflammation response making repetitive stress injuries such as Carpal Tunnel Syndrome more likely, experts also recommend regular workplace stress evaluations and interventions when necessary.

Ideally, an integrated wellness programme that incorporates effective communication strategies, emotional awareness, interpersonal skills and group processes in a holistic Health and Safety plan will be implemented before a conflict-stress cycle starts in a workplace. When workers and managers have these tools in place before a potentially conflict arises, the potential to engage in a conflict is lessened. If a conflict situation already exists in the workplace, appropriate conflict intervention followed by facilitator training in proven conflict management processes for managers, supervisors and designated employees is recommended so that they can be able to assist in resolving conflict situations as well as train others on how to effectively handle conflict.

An effective wellness programme focussing on mental and emotional wellbeing as well as interpersonal conflict resolution can be the last piece in the puzzle for a business looking to reach complete proactive health and safety preparedness.