How to combat stress and conflict at work

Usually happy, resilient and collaborative staff seem less present in their day-to-day duties. Something’s not quite right in the working atmosphere

Perhaps more than most, high-level assistants can feel the weight of their world (and their bosses) on their shoulders. But if you start to feel the strain, what happens, asks David Liddle?

As you will know only too well, the importance of a high-level personal assistant to an in-demand senior manager is immense. In fact, when business leaders aren’t being bolstered by their EAs, they’re proven to be at a much higher risk of stress, longer working hours and mental health issues. But what happens when the EAs themselves aren’t supported?

According to recent surveys, the importance of an EA is too often lived but not felt by their peers – almost 50% of assistants are considered as key decision-makers within their respective businesses but far less are said to feel that they are fully supported by their companies.

In these situations, businesses must do more to acknowledge the critical role that EAs play in keeping their worlds turning. If hard work isn’t rewarded, feelings of goodwill and cooperation can start to sour, relationships fracture and alliances splinter.

When we’re feeling the pressure, we’re driven by stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, affecting our rational decision-making abilities. It’s a basic chemical reaction – and one that can lead to conflict.

Reports from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development suggest that over a third of employees experience some form of conflict each year, often resulting in a loss of productivity, low engagement and absence from work. Let’s not forget that EAs, like all other employees, are humans with emotion, feeling and a whole host of wants, needs and desires.

Let’s look at the connection between stress and conflict

A study by Tiger Recruitment revealed 36% of executives say that their PA helps them to eat well, while a quarter claim they enable them to spend more time exercising and more time at home with their family. But if a stressed EA isn’t there to provide a helping hand to their respective boss, chaos typically ensues – and you’ve got a problematic working relationship rumbling under the surface.

When people are stressed, it often affects their ability to think rationally. This can lead to poor decision-making, mistakes and low productivity. But because of the stigma surrounding mental health, staff under stress can find it hard to speak up. A lack of understanding from managers coupled with what may look like an apathetic assistant – who is really struggling deep down – can cause conflict to arise.

It’s important for EAs and your counterpart leaders to be able to spot the signs of stress. Noticing behaviour changes, promoting a psychologically safe environment and nipping disagreements in the bud are some ways to manage employee wellbeing and the onset of workplace conflict.

Let’s look at the issue in more depth, through the three-stage life cycle of conflict:


This is the earliest phase of conflict. Usually happy, resilient and collaborative staff seem less present in their day-to-day duties. Something’s not quite right in the working atmosphere – a member of staff is turning up late, reacts snappily to a co-worker or appears to be less engaged with a client than before.

At this early stage, it’s important to be curious and listen actively. Retaining a level of objectivity and empathy is crucial to kickstarting some critical conversations about behaviours and emotions.


When issues go unnoticed or good behaviour and hard work is left unacknowledged, disputes arise. There may be public quarrels, complaints and team factions at this stage of real conflict.

To diffuse the situation, a manager can intervene in a safe, facilitated space to depersonalise the problem. Bringing the parties in conflict together to talk openly about their issues can be a breakthrough point for unvoiced concerns previously brushed under the carpet. The manager should encourage ground rules of mutual respect, confidentiality and uninterrupted speaking time. When listening to each party, it’s crucial not to make assumptions and summarise back what you’re hearing to ensure correct understanding of the situation.


This reflective stage allows all parties involved to look ahead and establish a basis of trust, cooperation and goodwill going forward. After the storm has passed, the leader involved should role model compassion, care and calm to parties. If a positive and protective culture is presented to employees, with space to share their stress and worry, then a cohesive and resilient partnership will develop in turn.

So, how can we cope and get back to managing business effectively?

Keeping these five steps in mind will help to deal with stress-related conflict:

  • Make sure to check in regularly. A simple: “How are you doing, really?” can have a huge impact.
  • Reward hard work with praise, be it through words, monetary benefit or otherwise.
  • Actively listen to those in conflict and retain a level of objectivity and impartiality.
  • Be empathetic. Try and put yourself in the other person’s shoes, ask questions and disagree well.Don’t make assumptions and summarise back what you’re hearing from your colleagues.
  • Depersonalise the problem. A shared problem will result in a shared solution.

In summary, conflict may be inevitable in the workplace – but if we can keep stress at bay and deal with problems constructively and compassionately, it needn’t be detrimental to our individual and business productivity, wellbeing and success.

Now, let’s get back to spinning plates…!

David Liddle is a recognised leader in conflict resolution, cultural change and transformational leadership. He is an author and CEO of The TCM Group, which he set up to reduce the negative impacts of conflict at work by making the most of mediation