How Can We Overcome Workplace Drama in the Wake of COVID and the Great Resignation?

Drama in the workplace is not unusual, but drama incidences took on new meaning during the COVID pandemic and labor shortage. Many employees are unhappy because they feel overworked and underpaid, unsafe, and treated unfairly in various ways. The challenge of workplace drama is discerning fact from fiction. Sometimes, employees who enjoy drama are people displaying ego and don't have a real issue. They gossip, fabricate stories about management and coworkers, find ways to trigger conflict and find other ways to cause havoc. Minimizing drama is possible with a communication strategy to overcome drama in the workplace before the discord grows and harms the organizational culture or even leads to unionization.  

Navigating Drama in the Healthcare Setting 

Do you have a communication strategy to overcome drama in the workplace? Drama can develop in any workplace; a good example is the healthcare setting. The healthcare industry is in turmoil due to a shortage of nurses, employee burnout, financial pressures made worse during the COVID pandemic, and the increasing unionization of healthcare workers.  

Employer responses include paying high sign-up bonuses, adjusting worker schedules, and using travel agency nurses. But the responses have become sources of drama, much to the frustration of employers. For example, travel agency nurses are usually paid more than staff nurses to compensate for their flexibility, willingness to accept short-term assignments, and in some cases, ability to bring specialty skills to hard-to-fill medical units like critical care.   

Real-World Scenarios

Consider the following two real-world scenarios with the names changed.  

Scenario 1: When Susan Chambers* saw the job posting for new RNs at her hospital, she was livid. "I've seen our hiring bonus go from $6,000 to $7,500 - but TEN GRAND? It's too much! I've been here almost 12 years - yes, I stuck it out through COVID - where's my retention bonus?"  

Scenario 2: Jack Warner* became resentful during the pandemic because he risked his health and his family's health by continuing to work. "I deserved the hazard pay for my loyalty and exposure to health risks, and I am really happy it became part of my permanent pay. Now I don't have to work overtime anymore to make ends meet and avoid risking burnout." 

In the first scenario, the employer was trying to ensure enough staffing was available to deliver quality patient care and ended up creating resentment among existing employees. In the second scenario, the employer's response to paying hazard pay made the staffing shortage worse.  

Infighting, drama, and resentment have become part of the workplace in many talent-strapped organizations these days, but it's been particularly challenging in healthcare. The pay for full-time nurses often doesn't match what's being paid to traveling nurses. A Patient Care Assistant need only have a high school diploma and on-the-job training, but today, they may enjoy more flexibility and nearly equal wages compared to degreed, salaried RNs.  

At other companies, the drama extends to experienced staff vs. new hires, generational differences, employees willing to quit their jobs with little notice leaving remaining employees feeling overworked, lack of good leadership decision-making, multicultural and multigenerational differences, scheduling issues, and labor unions creating unrest by planting ideas of dissension.   

Drama is expressed in a variety of ways: 

  • Gossiping about coworkers 
  • Purposely trying to get a coworker in trouble with a manager 
  • Regularly complaining 
  • Finding frequent faults in the workplace 
  • Judging others 
  • Resisting feedback 
  • Sabotaging someone else's efforts 
  • Refusing to collaborate 
  • Comparing a personal situation to the situation of others 
  • Regularly attempting to start a conflict of some sort 
  • Taking sides in conflicts 
  • Perceiving wrongs where there aren't any  
drama in healthcare

What Causes Drama and Workplace Conflict? 

First, what is drama in the workplace? Drama refers to things like employee infighting in the workplace or employees who are adversarial with managers and supervisors. It is defined by lack of incivility, frequent problems concerning work relationships or meeting job requirements, spreading unverified information, purposeful antagonizing of coworkers, resisting feedback, and turning minor issues into major problems. People creating drama are often not interested in getting along or finding reasonable solutions to problems, but sometimes they don't even realize they are drama instigators. They want attention for some reason.  

What causes workplace conflict? Sometimes, the answer is simply personality. Some people seem to enjoy drama or negativity. Everyone has come across someone like that in their lifetime. It is a difficult issue for your managers because they can't change someone's personality. They can only deal with the specific issues that trigger the drama episodes. 

Many causes of workplace conflict are due to the dynamics of the modern-day business environment, like the workforce issues prompted by COVID, a labor shortage, and a pro-union federal government. Following are some additional causes.  

  • Generational differences with distinct differences between baby boomers and Gen X versus millennials and Gen Z 
  • Uncertainty about job security 
  • Lack of alignment between organizational operations and stated values 
  • Lack of alignment between leadership decisions and stated values 
  • Personality differences 
  • Poor management communication 
  • Lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities 
  • Management decision-making that makes employees feel undervalued 
  • Lack of adequate resources 
  • Heavy workload due to unfilled positions 
  • Workplace safety issues 
  • Hybrid workforce issues concerning inclusion, communication, and collaboration 
  • Cultural differences leading to misunderstandings 
  • Personal fears and insecurities 

The generational differences top the list because the U.S. workforce has never had so many generations working at the same time. The youngest generation – Gen Z – has entered the workforce, with the oldest members being 21 years old. Some workforces now have five generations: traditionalists, baby boomers, Generation X, millennials, and Generation Z. Imagine the different perspectives and experiences between someone born in 1960 (baby boomer) versus someone born in 2001 (Gen Z).   

Pew Research sums it up with this statement on the cohort effect: "Differences between generations can be the byproduct of the unique historical circumstances that members of an age cohort experience, particularly during a time when they are in the process of forming opinions." 

Generational differences in perspectives, work habits, experiences, personal beliefs, and so on can cause a lot of drama. For example, baby boomers don't always understand the work-life balance that is so important to millennials and Gen Z.  

Imagine this scenario. 

Jeannie Morris is a baby boomer who has worked her way up over the years into a management position. She has baby boomers, millennials, and Gen Z on her staff, plus many part-time positions that are mostly Gen Z. Her staff works with the public and must frequently collaborate with IT. Jeannie and all of her full-time staff are salaried.   

She is at her desk trying to solve an IT issue, and it is 5:00 PM on the dot. The baby boomers always ask her if she needs anything and if it is okay to leave. The millennials and Gen Z never ask. At quitting time, they simply walk out because they are focused on work-life and don't feel like they owe the workplace extra time. They don't like unexpected responsibilities that may keep them at work past normal working hours even though they are salaried.   

This repeated scenario at the end of the workday leads to friction between staff members and eventually blows up into real drama between staff members. Millennials feel like they are carrying a heavier work burden and show more responsibility. It's difficult because Jeannie could force people to work past normal work hours but appreciates staff members who are voluntarily collaborative and helpful in difficult situations. What new drama will emerge between employee groups if she forces people to stay? 

Jennie's unit is also short-staffed. There are three unfilled positions. The last time she posted a job opening, she received three applications for a full-time job with great benefits. Only one person showed up for the interview. The other two applicants ghosted her. This has placed more work on the staff and Jeannie and created even more drama between the generations. 

Is the Labor Shortage Contributing to Workplace Drama? 

The skilled labor shortage continues. With a shortage of skilled workers, the job market has employers scrambling to meet customer needs.  

  • In May of 2022, there were 11.3 million openings for jobs in America 
  • In May 2021, there were 9.2 million job openings in the US 
  • In May 2019, there were 7.5 million job openings in the US 

The current job openings are an almost 200% increase over just a decade ago. In May 2012, there were 3.6 million job openings. 

Conger offers material handling solutions and has experience with the skilled labor shortage. The company shares insights as to the reasons for the shortage in skilled labor that include tradespeople like electricians, plumbers, machinists, carpenters, welders, pipefitters, and steelworkers.  

The shortage was caused by a variety of factors that include retiring baby boomers and younger generations that have a different perspective about skilled labor, considering it too physical, dangerous, and dirty. They want to work in more tech-focused jobs.   

The result is that existing employees have to make up for the fact there are fewer workers and work longer hours. Most received a bonus, but that didn't prevent workers from feeling burnout and frustration. Many are leaving the trade industry to find less demanding jobs in a labor market filled with job opportunities. To fill positions, employers have to choose among fewer applicants who do not meet all the desired qualifications. This leads to more injuries and poorer work and places a heavier burden on existing employees with experience. This is coupled with the impacts of COVID, which led to actions like freezing hiring and terminations.  

It's easy to understand how companies in the skilled trades industry are experiencing a lot of drama driven by a labor shortage. This drama is found in all industries and for many of the same reasons.  

Need some help navigating workplace conflict and drama?

We're here to help you solve your unique needs. Our team of experts can help you implement the strategy that works best for your organization!

What's the Cost of Drama at Work?

Cy Wakeman, author of the book  NO Ego, How HR Leaders Can Cut the Bost of Workplace Drama, End Entitlement and Drive Big Results, found in his research the average employee spends almost two hours and 26 minutes each day involved in drama. His calculations showed that a hypothetical company with 100 employees earning $30 per hour and working full-time costs the company $6,240,000 annually. Of that amount, $1,794,000 is the cost of drama or emotional waste.   

Drama costs in various ways: 

  • Lowers productivity 
  • It leads to poor communication and trust 
  • Lowers employee morale 
  • Lowers employee engagement 
  • Produces higher turnover 
  • Increases the inability to problem solve 
  • Increases recruitment costs 
  • Damages the organizational culture 
  • Reduces collaboration 
  • Harms the team experience  
  • Lowers customer retention 

Ultimately, unchecked workplace drama leads to a toxic organizational culture.  

How Can We Stop Drama in the Workplace?

There are many steps a leader can take to stop drama in the workplace. For example, ensuring existing employees are treated as well as new hires in terms of compensation, bonuses, benefits, and flexible scheduling is one tactic. Training current employees, as well as new employees, is another.  

However, you need to start by revamping your communication strategy to overcome drama in the workplace because the drama that is allowed to build and continue is an indication your leaders need to develop new skills. Many times, the reason conflict and drama develops is due to managers and supervisors who have not been clear about each employee's role and responsibilities. This is a communication issue. 

Leadership communication training is the first and key step in putting an end to the drama. Important communication skills include:  

  • Transparency 
  • Having an open dialogue about the real issues 
  • Knowing how to set boundaries 
  • Modeling a high level of trust 
  • Using empathy and emotional intelligence to understand people's motivations and experiences 
  • Holding people causing drama accountable 
  • Helping people cope with change and gaining a better understanding of business goals and values 
  • Building a culture of accountability 
  • Delivering honest feedback 
  • Giving people opportunities to be heard (a voice 
drama in the workplace

What Can Companies Do to Develop a Communication Strategy to Overcome Workplace Drama? 

A communications strategy to overcome drama in the workplace must focus on the particular problems in your organization. For this reason, many organizations decide to hire a communications consultant to assist with developing a communication strategy to overcome drama in the workplace.   

For example, the communication strategy to overcome drama in the workplace in the healthcare setting is different than the communication strategy in a retail business or a business office. In the healthcare workplace, the drama may concern staffing ratios, hiring bonuses, patient workloads, schedules, safety, or a mix of these issues. The communication strategy to overcome drama in the workplace includes steps like the following. 

  • Obtain multiple viewpoints to get the whole story and only deal with facts 
  • Hold one-on-one and team conversations with employees causing drama and ask them how the workplace can be improved, turning conflict into an opportunity for feedback. 
  • Coach staff who indulge in drama and help them understand how their behaviors are impacting patient care and teamwork 
  • Regularly talk to healthcare employees in the workplace through strategies like leader rounding
  • Gather feedback and follow up by communicating with employees and explaining the reasoning behind decisions about work schedules, patient loads, bonus payments, etc. 
  • Communicate with clarity the roles and responsibilities of employees 
  • Review Human Resources policies to ensure they fit the current circumstances in the workplace 
  • Ensure consistency in setting work schedules and work assignments (play no favorites) 
  • Establish a system for ensuring nurse-to-nurse communication during shift changes 
  • Address compensation issues like the need for retention bonuses 
  • Get buy-in for change initiatives. 
  • Demonstrate support for employee well-being  

A communication strategy to overcome drama in the workplace in any industry will include developing specific leadership skills. It's a mix of building a positive culture through skilled leadership and knowing how to deal with specific incidences of drama.  

  • Identifying the drama level 
  • Immediately addressing drama head-on rather than letting it fester 
  • Documenting incidences of drama 
  • Overseeing dispute resolution 
  • Becoming role models for avoiding overreactions 
  • Creating an open-door policy that leaders encourage employees to use 
  • Establishing staff behavioral expectations that include no gossiping 
  • Holding people and teams accountable 
  • Strengthening employee engagement by making employees feel valued 
  • Training employees in the organization's values and culture 
  • Giving employees an authentic voice 
  • Developing shared purpose 

Humans are emotional. Drama is often due to ego, but the turmoil people are living with today is contributing to the frequency of drama. The challenge is discerning between drama with no foundation and drama that is a symptom of an organizational problem. For example, workers at 84 facilities operated by a healthcare company were awarded back pay for millions of dollars by the U.S. Department of Labor. The DOL found the company did not pay wages for meal periods of less than 20 minutes and didn't add bonuses and other incentive pay to the hourly rate when figuring overtime. There is little doubt that employees were creating drama over the issue long before the issue ended up at the DOL.  

Strategy to Address the Real Issues

Job insecurity, unfilled positions, excessive workloads, perceived unequal compensation policies, and the availability of jobs has created an ideal setting for people who enjoy drama or who are susceptible to getting caught up in it. It's important to identify the real issue before proposing a solution. The solution begins with a communication strategy to overcome drama in the workplace. 

*Names changed 

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About the Author Walter Orechwa

Walter is IRI's Director of Digital Solutions and founder of UnionProof & A Better Leader. As the creator of Union Proof Certification, Walter provides expert advice, highly effective employee communication resources and ongoing learning opportunities for Human Resources and Labor Relations professionals.