Work-related stress – poor workplace relationships

This guidance may help employers manage employee relationships and also suggests measures to control work-related stress from workplace relationships.


Psychosocial hazards

Psychosocial hazards are factors in the design or management of work that increase the risk of work-related stress and can lead to psychological or physical harm. Examples of psychosocial hazards might include poor supervisor support or high job demands.

Employees are likely to be exposed to a combination of psychosocial hazards. Some hazards might always be present at work, while others only occasionally. There is a greater risk of work-related stress when psychosocial hazards combine and act together, so employers should not consider hazards in isolation.

Psychosocial hazards do not necessarily reveal the causes of work-related stress. Causes are likely to be specific to the employee, work or workplace. Senior management should identify which psychosocial hazards negatively affect employees' health and well-being and take appropriate action to control the impact of those hazards.

Understanding workplace relationships

Employers should consider interactions between employees in the workplace and implement appropriate risk controls if they identify a risk to health and safety.

Negative interactions can start with low-intensity incivility, for example, sarcasm, mocking or social exclusion, and, if unaddressed, escalate into more damaging interactions such as bullying, violence or aggression. Interactions can be verbal or in writing, for example, an email.

Relationships with managers, colleagues and subordinates can positively or negatively affect the way an employee feels. Wherever groups of people work together, it is likely that conflict will arise from time to time.

Conflict may especially become a factor if it remains unresolved, becomes particularly intense or becomes workplace bullying. Employers need to take proactive steps to prevent or reduce conflict as early as possible.

Reducing task and relationship conflict and encouraging teamwork

Employers must decide what risk control measures they will use to manage relationship conflicts that may lead to work-related stress.

Managing relationship conflicts in the workplace will help employers meet their obligation to provide a working environment that is safe and without risks to health, so far as is reasonably practicable.

Controls should focus on job design, work environment, and working conditions. To manage relationships, employers should ensure employees have clearly defined roles, encourage communication and educate employees on appropriate workplace behaviours and on how to deal with conflict.

Task conflict

Task conflict can arise over resources, procedures and policies or disagreements about facts. Modest levels of task conflict can encourage creative thinking and problem solving. However, high levels or long-term conflict can limit employees' ability to focus on the task at hand and may create stress.

Employers can manage task conflict by ensuring there is role clarity and appropriate communication.

Role clarity

Ways in which role clarity can be achieved include:

  • ensuring systems are in place so employees can raise concerns about any conflicts they have within their role and responsibilities. For example, regular team meetings so employees can discuss potential task conflicts
  • addressing work duplication or unintentional role duty changes that result in conflict
  • ensuring all tasks are clearly allocated so there are no conflicts over uncertainty around whose role it is to perform the task


Ways in which appropriate communication can reduce task conflict include:

  • encouraging employees to have input into procedures and tasks
  • involving employees in decisions that may impact on their tasks, when possible
  • regular team meetings to discuss pressures and challenges within the work unit
  • encouraging employees to come up with and work through risk control measures for any task-related issues
  • providing regular feedback on task performance
  • recognising whenever employees have done tasks well and being specific about what was done well
  • providing employees with practical advice and guidance on areas that need improving
  • coaching employees in communication skills to increase their awareness of other people's points of view and their ability to negotiate solutions to resolve conflict

Relationship conflict

Relationship conflict amongst employees can harm individuals and the organisation. Relationship conflict can present itself in various ways, including animosity, social conflict and abusive styles of supervision.

Ways to manage relationship conflict include:

  • ensuring a code of conduct is in place and enforcing code of conduct standards to demonstrate that there are consequences for poor behaviour
  • setting team rules of engagement or developing a team charter in consultation with team members
  • leader and manager role modelling of appropriate workplace behaviours
  • coaching individual employees who are demonstrating poor workplace behaviours
  • providing conflict management training to all employees to teach them how to diffuse difficult or confronting situations
  • training managers how to identify a conflict situation and resolve it early
  • managing people issues and their resolution in a consistent and timely manner
  • supporting open communication and encouraging employees to share their concerns about work-related conflict at an early stage
  • developing and implementing formal and informal confidential complaint-handling processes to enable the reporting of inappropriate behavior
  • providing conflict resolution processes such as mediation, facilitated discussions or conflict coaching as options for resolving complaints of inappropriate behaviour
  • arranging independent investigations into serious allegations of misconduct and then following up on identified issues
  • training and inducting employees so they are aware of appropriate work behaviours, for example, civility training


Prolonged and unresolved relationship conflict may result in workplace bullying. Workplace bullying is repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed at an employee or group of employees that creates a risk to health and safety. Workplace bullying can have an impact on an individual's health and affect their ability to do their job. It can also contribute to loss of productivity, staff turnover, absenteeism, low morale and financial costs.

Employers need to have processes in place to ensure that any allegation of bullying or identified bullying in the workplace is investigated and action taken to eliminate it, as far as reasonably practicable.


Ways to promote productive and cohesive teamwork include:

  • promoting a team culture where employees help each other and provide support when required
  • recognising that differences in employees' ideas and opinions leads to positive and creative outcomes and opportunity to respectfully discuss
  • promoting a culture where colleagues trust and encourage each other to perform at their best
  • encouraging effective, honest, open communication at all levels
  • looking for design issues that might negatively affect team communication, for example, isolated work groups
  • rewarding the performance of a group as a whole rather than individuals. Rewarding a group may enhance teamwork and avoid potential conflict between employees
  • reinforcing teamwork through rewards, for example, a team meal
  • ensuring rewards are equal and accessible to all team members who contribute to a project or task

Work-related stress and your legal duties

The Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act) requires employers to provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to health, so far as is reasonably practicable. This responsibility includes providing and maintaining safe systems of work and an obligation to consult with employees and HSRs on matters that directly affect or are likely to affect their health or safety, including hazards and risks associated with work-related stress.

Employees also have duties under the OHS Act to take reasonable care for their own health and safety, the health and safety of people in the workplace and to co-operate with their employer.

More about your legal obligations

Related pages

This information is from 'Preventing and managing work-related stress: A guide for employers'. The complete guide is available in two formats.

Website version PDF guide