Work stress: even model staff eventually act up, study finds

Best employees more likely to delay misconduct, say researchers

Agreeable or conscientious workers may be less likely to misbehave immediately after dramatic changes in the workplace, such as the start of a busy season or the arrival of a demanding boss, but they are just as likely, if not more likely, to join in later, research has indicated. Photograph:Toru Hanai/Reuters

Agreeable or conscientious workers may be less likely to misbehave immediately after dramatic changes in the workplace, such as the start of a busy season or the arrival of a demanding boss, but they are just as likely, if not more likely, to join in later, research has indicated. Photograph:Toru Hanai/Reuters

 

Stealing office supplies, taking longer lunch breaks and other disobedience in response to work stress is observed in even the best employees, although it may take them weeks or months after a stressful change to exhibit such behaviour, a new study has found.

Agreeable or conscientious workers may be less likely to misbehave immediately after dramatic changes in the workplace, such as the start of a busy season or the arrival of a demanding boss, but they are just as likely, if not more likely, to join in later.

These are the findings from research published last week in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology by San Francisco State University organisational psychologist Kevin Eschleman and colleagues.

This phenomenon may cause companies to underestimate the effect of poor behaviour on their bottom line because they assume it only takes place immediately after the stressful change.

“People don’t just respond immediately with these deviant behaviours,” said Prof Eschleman, assistant professor of psychology at San Francisco State University. “They may also have a delayed response that isn’t caught by the organisation.”

“That means that the organisation is not taking into account long term costs associated with these delayed behaviours.”

Psychologists know that high levels of workplace stress cause counterproductive work behaviour, but past research looked mainly at employees’ responses to the level of stress they experienced at specific moments.

Prof Eschleman and his colleagues set out to study how and when employees handled general changes to workplace stress and whether their personalities affected their response to stressful situations.

Through surveying employees in a range of fields three times over six months, the researchers found that an increase in stress led to an immediate increased engagement in counterproductive work behaviour. They also found that some employees who did not engage in deviant behaviour at first did so weeks or months later.

“Maybe you don’t have the opportunity to engage in these deviant behaviours right away, and you want to wait until no one is around,” Eschleman said. “Or maybe you think you can cope right away, but then down the road you end up engaging in these behaviours.”

This was especially noticeable in workers considered more agreeable - co-operative, good natured and trusting of the company - or more conscientious, ambitious, responsible and principled.

One possible reason for this phenomenon was that these workers may have better resources to deal with the stress at first. More agreeable employees might be able to cope better initially due to having more friends and support networks, while those employees that are seen as more conscientious or hard-working may receive benefits from superiors that ease the transition.

“Your personality might influence how you try to cope initially,” Prof Eschleman said.

“But if things are bad for a really long time, it doesn’t matter what your personality is. At the end of the day, you’re going to do these deviant things,” he said.