Office stress? Workers may wait before acting out

November 7, 2014
Science Daily/San Francisco State University
When office stress increases, some employees may wait weeks or months before engaging in 'counterproductive work behaviors' such as taking long lunches or stealing office supplies. The research suggests that companies or other organizations need to account for this delayed response when planning for changes in employee behavior due to stress. Researchers also found that an employees' personality can also affect their response.

The research from SF State organizational psychologist Kevin Eschleman shows that many employees wait weeks or months before engaging in "counterproductive work behaviors," like taking a longer lunch or stealing office supplies. As a result, this behavior, which by some estimates costs businesses billions of dollars annually, may actually be far more expensive.

"People don't just respond immediately with these deviant behaviors. They may also have a delayed response that isn't caught by the organization," said Eschleman, an assistant professor of psychology. "That means the organization is not taking into account long-term costs associated with these delayed behaviors."

Psychologists have known that high levels of workplace stress lead to counterproductive work behaviors, but previous research had primarily looked at snapshots in time: an employee's response at one specific moment to his or her current level of stress. Eschleman and his colleagues wanted to know how and when employees handled changes in workplace stress, as well as whether workers' personalities affected their response.

"Maybe you don't have the opportunity to engage in these deviant behaviors 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 behaviors."

That effect was especially seen in workers considered to be more "agreeable" (those who are cooperative, good-natured and trusting of the organization) or more "conscientious" (those who are ambitious, responsible and abide by ethical principles). While these individuals were less likely to engage in counterproductive behaviors initially, they were just as likely -- and the research suggests may be even more likely -- to do so later on.

Why? According to Eschleman, these workers have more "resources" available to help them cope with the increased stress, at least at first. For agreeable workers, that means there are more friends and other kinds of support to buck them up during tough times. Conscientious workers, for their part, receive more tangible benefits. Employers tend to invest money, benefits and more in employees they view as hard workers.

An effective training program, for instance, can make adjusting to a new computer system easier. Eventually, though, the added stress will win out for many: "Your personality might influence how you try to cope initially, 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," Eschleman said.

Companies should take care to tailor programs to help employees deal with stress, he added, since the research shows personality can complicate how and when employees respond.
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