The canary in the mine: what the release of Acas data tells us about our workplaces

Kirsty Watt , Director of Strategy and External Affairs

Kirsty Watt is the Director of Strategy and External Affairs at Acas. Kirsty was previously Deputy Director (Disadvantage and Place) at the Department for Education. She led teams to help tackle disadvantage issues faced by children and young people.

When individual conflict appears in the workplace, Acas dispute resolution systems and advisory services provide an early warning system. Our data is a 'canary in the mine' that shows up issues which, if addressed, can help prevent wider conflict and dispute. This week, we launched our early conciliation and employment tribunal data bulletin to bring that insight to employers and the policy and research community.

New data: what's causing the workplace disputes

This week's bulletin, with data from April to September 2023, shows we received 50,175 early conciliation cases, which is the step before a dispute goes to an employment tribunal; and 886 group cases, covering 40,624 people. This bulletin will be published quarterly. Over time, this data-set will build to provide invaluable long-term insight on the causes and outcomes of workplace disputes.

Acas has a long record of resolution success and, while large-scale, public-sector disputes are currently dominating media headlines, there's much value in focusing also on individual dispute data. Of the early conciliation notifications which came into the system in April-June 2023; 72% have not yet led to the submission of a claim to the tribunal; and 76% of employment tribunal claims that were closed in that period, were resolved without the need for a hearing (of these 73% were settled by Acas).

The largest number of individual cases were open track – that is, the most legally complex cases involving at least one type of discrimination or whistleblowing claim. These more complex cases also made up almost 50% of employment tribunal claims. This is not new: open track cases have often made up a large proportion of all cases. The largest proportion of employment tribunal discrimination cases from April to September are on grounds of disability, race or sex, which highlights the importance of our new advice on disability discrimination and race discrimination and the further research on disability discrimination we are undertaking next year.

These are cases which have reached the point of potential or actual tribunal claims. Such disputes can be costly for all concerned, in terms of stress as well as financially. Indeed, Acas research from 2021 on costs of conflict showed that individual conflict – both inside the workplace and through to tribunal claims – costs UK organisations £28.5 billion a year. It also tells us clearly that resolving matters early in the workplace is the least costly outcome of all.

This is another reason why Acas's data is so important. By understanding the kinds of issues individuals and employers approach us about for advice, we are better able to spot where conflict might turn into disputes if it is left unresolved.

Early signals: redundancies, cost of living and mental health

Our website and helpline are often the first indicators of the kinds and volumes of issues being faced in workplaces across the country. Total helpline calls for each quarter of 2023 so far have been higher than for any quarter in 2022. Calls about redundancies, lay-offs and business transfers to the helpline were up 20% in Q2 on this time last year, with the proportion of those referencing insolvency higher than either the previous quarter or the same quarter last year. We have yet to see if that translates into individual disputes but gives us early warning of possible issues.

Discipline, dismissal and grievance, contracts and wages are perennial issues, which is why we have recently launched a new campaign to help employers get the basics right and have advice and templates on contracts.

We all know that the economic context in recent times has been challenging for many, and our data shows that this is manifesting in different ways in the workplace too. Helpline advisers report callers referencing cost of living and inflation challenges, and frequent mental health and wellbeing factors.

Our impartial role in providing services to both employers and employees gives us the great privilege of hearing both voices and our data is a rich and unique source of insight. We now want to share that insight more widely to foster and develop a better understanding of conflict and how it can be resolved and prevented.

We will continue to share this data each quarter and hope to share more over time. We are keen to hear from and work with others to pool and share our data and insight. We will shortly open a survey to find out what insight our stakeholders need. If you're interested in taking part please contact

Read our new statistical bulletin outlining early conciliation and employment tribunal cases

We have a wide range of training and tailored support for organisations and line managers to get workplace policies right. Find out more about Acas training.