Addressing Workplace Conflicts Escalated by Difficulties During COVID-19

by Anitra Lesser, M.Ed., Organizational Development and Learning Consultant

Bulletin,  Organizational Development

Even before what we now call our new COVID-19 “normal” conditions, people were under a great deal of physical and emotional stress. They were coping with growing pressures and expectations, challenges with work-life balance, consistent, if not almost chronic, change in the workplace (and often at home), and ever-increasing interpersonal conflicts at the office with co-workers. Things were already difficult; people felt over-worked, exhausted, change and uncertainty saturated and going cross-wise with colleagues that they triggered and were triggered by. Then enters COVID-19 and the ongoing global pandemic. It is no surprise that many people were on edge and depleted individually and professionally with all this going on. ¬†Under these conditions, when our brain, energy, capabilities, and emotions are taxed, interpersonal conflict is more likely to occur, and we are simply less resourced to handle it well.

Common Causes of Conflict

There are several root causes of conflict. A few common causes of conflict are:

  • Values conflicts– Each of us brings our own unique worldview and set of attitudes and values that inform how we interact and behave. Differing values are among the most common and challenging sources of conflict because values are often tied tightly to our self-identity, and people often find themselves in an all-or-nothing argument with core values at stake.
  • Personality conflicts– Everyone has a unique set of traits, strengths, trouble spots, and habits that partially determine how we make decisions, experience emotions, energize and get our needs met. It is relatively easy to tell that different and often opposing personality styles and behavior habits are a common source of workplace conflict.
  • Interest conflicts- We are all driven by a core set of needs, feelings, and fears that are connected with our self-esteem baseline and how we go about taking care and staying safe in our daily interactions. Interests are fundamental drivers for what we need and want. Because interests are often a few layers of the onion down and are quite vulnerable to share, they often get expressed in the form of a rigid demand and met in kind.
  • Perception Conflicts- Each of us has both conscious and unconscious awareness of how we see the world and what we pay attention to as a result. Many conflicts arise from differences in what we notice and focus on, find important, and assumptions we make about that data. Further, because we all pay attention to slightly different aspects of things, select perception and disagreements about what was perceived are quick to arise, especially under stress and pressure.
  • Expectations Conflicts- In connection with our underlying interests, we each form a specific set of beliefs and “should” about how we think things are best handled for the best outcome. When people hold too rigidly to and are unaware of their “should,” they can easily lead to conflicting expectations and somewhat black and white thinking whereby my expectations are right and yours are, well, wrong.

How COVID-19 Escalated Co-Worker Conflicts

It is not surprising that when an already stressed and stretched thin workforce was faced with the pile-on effect that COVID-19 drastically up-ended for people, emotions and relationships got shakier, if not tumultuous. Both Gallup Poll and Harris Poll surveys in 2020 revealed some of the following statistics regarding the stressful impacts of COVID-19 on our workforce:

  • 83% of US workers suffer from work-related stress.
  • US businesses lose up to $300 billion yearly as a result of workplace stress.
  • Stress causes around 1,000,000 workers to miss work every day.
  • Only 43% of US employees think their employers care about their work-life balance.
  • Depression led to $51 billion in absenteeism costs and $26 billion in treatment costs.
  • Work-related stress causes 120,000 deaths and results in $190 billion in healthcare costs yearly.
  • 52% of Generation Z in the US have been diagnosed with mental health issues.
  • 57% of stressed out respondents are paralyzed by stress.
  • 46% of parents rated their daily stress level between 8-10 on a 10 point high scale
  • 61% of adults stated they needed more emotional support than they received in 12 months


These statistics scratch the surface of the impacts of COVID-19 on people’s stress levels and capacity to cope with more demands, requests, expectations, and differences with co-workers. The neuroscience of stress is clear that when people are in a stress response in general, let alone a prolonged state of stress, they may experience a combination of the following:

When we are in pain and fear, anger and hate are our go-to emotions. ~Brene Brown

What Can You Do When Co-Worker Tension Flares and Conflict Escalates?

By now, most of us have been either directly involved or indirectly involved in co-worker conflicts. There are an abundance of escalating values, expectations, and interests conflicts over things like:¬† inequality and injustice, wearing masks (how to, when to, why, where, etc.), “safe” distancing comfort levels, comfort or discomfort with return to work policies, virtual meeting fatigue, flexible work schedules for some but not others, over or under sanitizing workspace, beliefs, and values about vaccines, missing or late to meetings due to work from home and family demands, and this list goes on and on.

Recognizing, embracing, and understanding the current environment related to COVID-19 positions employers to respond. Here are some approaches and options that may help reduce the prevalence of workplace conflicts.

  • Stay highly tuned into your work culture and business practices that might be causing additional stress and build in stress-relieving practices at work.
  • Create opportunities for dialogue about the different needs, challenges, and difficulties employees are navigating to increase understanding and decrease assumption making.
  • Contact Employers Council to discuss options for Mediation and Facilitated Conversation solutions to allow an expert to support employees and leaders stuck in a problematic relationship dynamic.
  • Invite and help your workforce at ALL levels stay mindful about the different value systems among your diverse workforce and practice extra patience and care with one another.
  • Communicate why you are implementing certain measures, whether due to legal requirements or public health authorities’ recommendations.
  • Have clear policies in place to ensure workers don’t come to work when they feel ill, have symptoms of COVID-19, or have potentially been exposed to the virus.
  • Keep current about state and government regulations regarding the pandemic.
  • Clarify and repeatedly and in different forums share your “WHY” behind decisions.
  • Invite openness and welcome comments and concerns from employees.
  • Provide skilled training to leaders and managers on healthy leadership coaching to empower them to provide more and more beneficial emotional support now and overtime.
  • Hire expert facilitators to guide conversations about differing values and to find common ground.
  • Consider adjusting your expectations, where feasible, about what success and productivity look like to allow people more space and choice to work with mounting challenges at work and home.
  • Invest in additional supplies such as PPE and supplies employees might typically share, so they don’t need to change hands frequently or at all.
  • Seek leadership coaching and support about guiding and helping your workforce and culture through these disruptive times.

Even for trained and skilled experts in the field of mediation, professional coaching, and dispute resolution, workplace conflicts and relationship tension and malaise are challenging to assess and fully resolve, particularly when there are a multitude of mitigating factors and if/when the conflict is longstanding. Know your limits and when to seek expert guidance and support, and remember that all decisions are emotionally based. The more emotionally supportive the leadership and work culture, the more psychological safety exists to allow people to walk through their difficulties together rather than in opposition to one another.

“As long as our culture defines success as money and power, we’re stuck on a treadmill of stress, sleep deprivation, and burnout.” ~Arianna Huffington, author of Thrive

About the author
Anitra Lesser, M.Ed., Organizational Development and Learning Consultant