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Mental health and conflict. How healthy are we?

Our mental health has been on a strong downward trend in recent years. The number of sick days due to mental illness has increased dramatically in recent years. But what does this have to do with conflicts and how can we change it?


Annette Behrendt on the connection between mental health and productivity.
Annette Behrendt on the connection between mental health and productivity.


Let’s start with the facts

Between 2018 and 2022, we saw a 27% increase in sick leave due to mental illness. This is slightly higher than the increase in total sick leave of almost 25%. One of the economic factors is the long period of absence for mental illness of 38.5 days (other illnesses are recorded at an average of 14.9 days). (1)


You might think that there is little that can be done about mental illness. However, a Swiss study has investigated the cause of these mental health-related sick days and found that around 57% of people became ill due to conflicts and problems at work . (2)


This now only applies to the defined mental illnesses; there is no data on psychosomatic illnesses. This means that mental illnesses are responsible for 3.2% of cases (specifically for 2021), but 11.8% of sick days. (1)


If we break these figures down to a small company with 100 employees, then according to statistics, 92 people become ill in the course of a business year. They remain on sick leave for 12.4 days. 3 of these people become mentally ill but are absent for almost 2 months. For 1.7 of these people, the cause can be traced back to conflicts in the workplace. (1)


These incredible numbers are even trumped by burnout statistics: In Germany, there is data from the AOK that is frightening. From 2004 to 2022, the number of days of incapacity for work due to burnout in Germany has increased almost twentyfold : from just 8.1 to 159.8. If we look at the same period as above, i.e. between 2018 and 2022, we are talking about an increase of 32.6%! Incredible numbers, but how does this happen and how do we know that it is so? (3)


What does mental health mean in the workplace?

Mental health plays a crucial role in the workplace as it is directly linked to employee performance, satisfaction and well-being.

But what is mental health? Mental health encompasses a person's emotional, psychological and social well-being . It affects how we think, feel and act, especially in stressful and challenging situations. A healthy mental balance enables employees to perform their tasks efficiently, think creatively and work productively. If mental health is neglected, stress, anxiety and depression can result, which not only affects individual well-being but also negatively affects the overall working environment. Studies show that companies with a high level of mental well-being among their employees experience fewer sick days, higher employee retention and better overall business results.


Conflicts in the workplace: causes and effects

Conflicts can very quickly contribute to the above-mentioned factors of stress and anxiety in the work context. The constant stress, which is already quite high due to the current lifestyle, is further increased by the fear of making mistakes, being judged or a lack of trust. This leads to misunderstandings and more widespread fear in companies.


Even small misunderstandings, if not cleared up, can have long-term consequences and cause major problems. Especially in times of home office and decentralized working, quick clarifications, conversations in the hallway or direct confrontation with colleagues at the same desk are no longer so easy. It is no longer so easy to recognize when colleagues have challenges or are struggling with specific tasks and circumstances. What you notice relatively quickly in personal interactions can be easily hidden in short Zoom or Teams meetings. This means that more serious problems are less likely to come to light.


Loneliness: Statistics on the increase

Another important factor affecting mental health is loneliness. Statistics show that loneliness has increased significantly in recent years, even before the pandemic. According to a recent study, over 40% of adults feel lonely on a regular basis, which has a serious impact on their mental health and general well-being. Loneliness can lead to serious health problems such as depression, anxiety and even physical ailments.


The role of HR

Studies show that companies with high levels of mental wellbeing among their employees experience fewer sick days, higher employee retention and better overall business results. It is therefore essential for HR professionals and managers to actively promote and support the mental health of their teams.

But what do conflicts have to do with these skills? A 2024 study of over 300 participants in Austria showed that many managers and employees are overwhelmed by conflict situations. This affects both the ability to address conflicts and to expose themselves to the conflict situation and deal with it productively. However, if conflicts and arguments are avoided, then exactly the opposite of what is generally expected happens. Employees withdraw, lose trust in managers and colleagues, and working together becomes even less possible. The factors mentioned above - stress, fear and loneliness - lead to the mental health of those affected being affected.


Prevention and management of conflicts

A proactive approach to conflict prevention and management requires a rethink in leadership and a culture of constructive arguing. It's about redefining leadership and at the same time learning together to argue better and more productively. But how can we open the doors to such a culture? How can we do more together and improve cooperation?


An essential step is to remove obstacles and problems that cause or exacerbate conflict. This includes establishing a new conflict culture and promoting conflict skills within the team. This means that we learn not only to accept conflict, but to use it as an opportunity for growth and improvement.

"Arguing better" may sound pleasant, but the process can be chaotic and challenging. It takes courage and perseverance to endure conflicts and resolve them constructively. Even though enduring conflicts may be unpleasant in the moment, in the long run it leads to enormous relief and a healthier, more productive work environment.


Effective conflict management involves promoting open communication, creating safe spaces for discussions and training in mediation techniques. Managers and HR professionals can help teams strengthen their conflict management skills and develop a culture of open and respectful dialogue through workshops, training and continuous feedback.


What does that mean now?

Mental health is not a foreign concept - it is present in almost every company and in almost every age group. In order to create a healthy working environment, it is important to actively approach your employees, colleagues and managers. The first step is to find out their positions on conflicts, disagreements and criticism. These initial discussions are particularly important in order to rebuild trust in one another and create a basis for open communication.

By specifically addressing these issues and obtaining feedback, you can make a decisive contribution to improving the conflict culture in your company. This process is essential to creating an atmosphere in which everyone involved feels safe and supported.


If you would like to approach this discussion and the transformation of the conflict culture with professional support, we would be happy to assist you. Our expertise will help you plan and implement the necessary steps to achieve a sustainable improvement in mental health and conflict management in your company. Get in touch with us - we will be happy to support you.





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