WORK-LIFE BALANCE / NOV. 14, 2014
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How Stress Makes You Naughty

It’s fairly well established that stress is not a good thing for any employee to be suffering from. It’s been shown for instance, that when we’re operating under considerable stress, our levels of self-control tend to drop, which in turn causes us to do bad things.

A fresh study from academics at San Francisco State University suggests, however, that this naughty behaviour may not materialise straight away, and certainly not in the immediate aftermath of the stress itself.

Indeed, the paper goes as far as to suggest that many of us wait months before engaging in negative behaviours. I should add here that the kind of negative behaviours we’re talking about aren’t full on Falling Down style meltdowns. But more subtle naughty things such as taking a longer lunch break or stealing a stapler from the store cupboard.

Nevertheless, these little things add up, with estimates suggesting that they cost the economy billions of pounds a year.

"People don’t just respond immediately with these deviant behaviors. They may also have a delayed response that isn’t caught by the organization," the researchers say. "That means the organization is not taking into account long-term costs associated with these delayed behaviors."

This is useful because previous studies have tended to look at stress in the workplace as an isolated incident.  So, for instance, they might explore how we react to particularly tight deadlines or that bullying boss. Taking a longer timeframe has given us a richer understanding of the impact of stress on us, however.

About the study

The researchers quizzed a range of employees across a variety of roles during a six month period to try and understand how often they’d undertaken naughty behaviours in their workplace. Suffice to say, it required a degree of honesty, but nonetheless, it emerged that stressful circumstances contributed to a rise in deviant behaviour.

The interesting part however, was that these behaviours continued sometime after the stressful circumstances ceased.

"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," the researchers say. "Or maybe you think you can cope right away, but then down the road you end up engaging in these behaviors."

As if that wasn’t bad enough, it also emerged that the most likely employees to engage in bad behaviour were those you’d least expect.  It emerged that the hardest working and most agreeable employees were especially likely to continue their bad behaviour long after the stress abated.

What causes the good to be naughty?

The authors suggest that the reason for this is straightforward. The conscientious employee tends to have a better support network around them at work, which allows them to cope well with the initial stress.

They are also likely to be on the receiving end of more investment from their employer, in areas such as training and development, as befitting their status as premium employees.

These things tend to soften the blow of stress in the first instance.  It is a persistent thing, however, and usually finds a way to wriggle inside of even the toughest defences, at which point even the most level headed can crack.

"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," the researchers conclude.

The research provides us with an invaluable reminder both of the negative impact of stress in the workplace, but also that our attempts to mitigate the risks involved should continue long past the time when the stressful time itself has passed.  If you don’t, it can drive even the best employee to the edge.

Have you ever been naughty long after a stressful event occurred? Do you think that the stressful event caused you to behave this way? Have you always been on Santa’s naughty list? Your thoughts and comments below please…

 

Image: iStock

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