Office politics threatens to undermine UK businesses

Soaring summer temperatures spell happy smiley people. Or so you thought. According to a new report by the Health and Safety Executive, as the weather gets hotter, tempers fray. In fact, claim occupational psychologists, August heat isn't the only reason employees are losing their cool.

Soaring summer temperatures spell happy smiley people. Or so you thought. According to a new report by the Health and Safety Executive, as the weather gets hotter, tempers fray. In fact, claim occupational psychologists, August heat isn't the only reason employees are losing their cool.

"There has never been a day when petty irritations weren't a source of office warfare," says Professor Marilyn Davidson, organisational psychologist at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. "But modern pressures at work mean they now have a huge effect on staff relations and very often prevent company objectives being reached."

She explains: "With today's short-term contracts and job insecurity, you can't risk venting anger in the boss's direction. So you pick colleagues and subordinates instead. These people may now be in direct competition with you. And because the feelings are deeply personal, the arguments also tend to be."

Bridget Hogg, occupational psychologist, adds that staff in the UK spend more hours in the office than those in any other European country and, what's more, they are increasingly expected to "team-work" with people they may not even like. In addition, the trend towards downsizing has led to many employees being forced to sit too close for comfort. Before you know it, the relentless sound of your neighbour clearing his throat has turned you psychotic, unable to work while your mind subconsciously plots revenge.

"Hot-desking hasn't helped," adds Ms Hogg. "Without any space to call their own, people wind up feeling unstable, undervalued and, consequently, irritable."

Ms Hogg believes the increasing blur between home and work - brought on by, among other things, flexible working practices and "corporate villages" complete with sleep modules - may also be to blame. "These new rules must suggest that if it's OK to snap at your partner at home for using up all the toothpaste, it's also OK to shout at your secretary at work for failing to put sugar in your tea."

Space, apparently, is one of the greatest taboos. Borrow your colleague's eraser and expect to be bitched about for a good week. Use her computer for half an hour and your life may not be worth living.

"Struggling for an established identity in a field of seeming anonymity, employees mark out their territory in a variety of ways," explains Christopher Early, professor of organisational behaviour at Indiana University in the United States. Just consider those who customise their workspace with photos of Jamie Oliver, or snaps of their offspring in various stages of infancy.

Research by psychologist Dr David Lewis for software company Novell has revealed that the increase in e-mail culture has also had a negative effect on office behaviour. "The sender of a letter or fax will most likely print the document and re-read it before putting it in an envelope or on to the fax machine," says Dr Lewis. "The writer of an e-mail, however, doesn't think twice, let alone read twice. The result? An immediate outlet for workplace frustrations."

When it comes to promoting office politics, banking and the retail sector are among the worst offenders, according to Beverley Stone, author of Confronting Company Politics. "That's because they value competition, which can encourage stress," she explains. "But they should beware. Any further increase in office politics, and British businesses could be in real trouble."

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