To say the past year has been stressful for those working in healthcare is a massive understatement. The coronavirus pandemic infused unprecedented chaos, often leaving hospital personnel at their wits’ end due to overcrowded conditions, lack of PPE, concern for their own safety, and the inability to provide interpersonal care.

It is well established that stress can lead to burnout among physicians, and COVID-19 has only exacerbated the problem. Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of the U.S. physicians who responded to a Medscape survey said the pandemic had intensified their sense of burnout. But stress can also breed conflict in healthcare, especially in cases where organizations lack proper physician support systems.

Since the one leads to the other, let's take a few minutes to talk about productive ways to manage stress before we get to a discussion about conflict management and conflict resolution strategies.

Stress Response and Conflict Management

To borrow a driving analogy from psychologist Connie Lillas, people tend to respond to overwhelming stress in one of three ways: 

Foot on the gas. They lash out with an angry or agitated stress response. 

Foot on the brake. They exhibit a withdrawn or depressed stress response. 

Foot on both gas and brake. They look paralyzed on the surface but, underneath, are extremely agitated. 

Not only that, but stress also inhibits conflict resolution by limiting a person's ability to: 

  • Accurately read another person's body language;
  • Listen to what someone is saying;
  • Be aware of their own feelings;
  • Communicate their needs clearly.

Lumen Learning, a provider of educational resource materials and courses, offers helpful tips for managing stress, helping to minimize conflict in the workplace. 

Be a problem solver. Make a list of the things that cause you to stress, and then use it to figure out which problems you can solve now, and which are beyond your control at the moment. 

Be flexible. Arguing is not always worth the stress it causes. Give in once in a while or be willing to compromise.

Take deep breaths. Taking a few deep breaths makes you breathe slower and helps your muscles relax. 

Get enough sleep, eat right, and exercise. You've heard that advice over and over, but the repetition does not lessen its importance. Getting enough sleep helps you recover from the stresses of the day, eating right gives you the necessary energy to manage, and exercise can help relax tense muscles and improve your mood.

Share your stress. Talk about your problems with friends or family members. They may help you gain a new perspective and suggest solutions that you hadn't thought of.

Seek professional help. Seek help from a qualified mental health professional if you are overwhelmed, feel you cannot cope, or have suicidal thoughts.

Conflict Management in Healthcare

Conflict is a normal part of any healthy relationship. That's just as true among members of a clinical healthcare team as any other.

Although conflict in healthcare is inevitable and unavoidable, it can lead to more collegial relationships, clearer communication, better performance, and higher HCAHPS ratings when appropriately managed. Absent proper management, conflict almost invariably affects productivity and patient care adversely—and can lead to low morale and high staff turnover.

While those in management positions bear the primary responsibility for creating a culture that supports healthy collaboration and constructive conversations, promoting conflict resolution in the workplace is everyone's job.

According to the University of South Florida Health Online, hospital staff members' surveys suggest that they often perceive doctors as a primary source of conflict. That means the behaviors providers display daily don't just impact them individually but everyone around them, including their patients, coworkers, fellow clinicians and their patients, and the overall hospital culture.

One thing is for sure—a conflict left untended will continue to fester, regardless of who is at fault. Because disputes involve perceived threats to our well-being and survival, they stay with us until we face and resolve them. 

With a view toward conflict resolution in mind, here are some conflict resolution skills you may wish to employ: 

Manage stress quickly while remaining alert and calm. Remaining calm and keeping your composure enables you to read and interpret verbal and nonverbal communication accurately.

Control your emotions and behavior. When in control of your emotions, you can communicate your needs in a non-threatening manner, without intimidating or punishing others.

Pay attention to the feelings being expressed as well as the words spoken by others.

Be aware of and respect differences. Disrespectful tones, words, and actions only serve to hinder problem resolution. Instead, it can foster resentment and lead to anger.

Practice radical candor. Radical Candor, a book on conflict management and resolution, advises managers to find the sweet spot between caring about their colleagues and challenging them by offering candid feedback without sacrificing empathy. In other words, say what you think but do it in a way that shows you care about the person.

Want more advice on conflict resolution management?

SCP Health has developed two tip sheets, one for hospital managers and one for providers, comprised of checklists to address and resolve conflict in healthcare. Click the links below to download each.

How to Promote Effective Clinician Conflict Resolution

This tip sheet looks at conflict from a leadership standpoint. It focuses on creating a culture that approaches conflict with action, mediation tactics, and ways to maintain a non-judgmental, bi-partisan perspective. 

Resolving Conflict at Work: Dos and Don'ts

This tip sheet offers dos and don'ts for interpersonal interaction that promotes a healthy workplace culture. It includes such tips as using respectful language and tone, being aware of your body language, and not displaying hostility or having a "know-it-all" attitude.