Delayed Reactions & Office Stress

Waiting for your fellow co-workers to light the HR department on fire after they announce a mandatory weekend of sensitivity training? Well, don’t count on something immediate—it turns out that people are perfectly willing to bid their time. After all, an old Klingon proverb holds that revenge is a dish best served cold.

A study published in the Journal of Occupation and Organizational Psychology has found that managers might be underestimating the impact of stress on workers because workers might only act out some time after the stressful event. Workplace stress has been associated with counterproductive workplace behaviours (for example, taking longer lunch breaks, purposely derailing meetings, “forgetting” to return calls or emails). However, past studies haven’t been long term, so researchers surveyed people in a variety of career fields three times over six months about stress at work and whether or not they’d engaged in counterproductive work behaviours (or CWBs).

They found that stress immediately increases CWBs, but they also found that some people wait weeks or months before doing so. The effect was especially noticeable for those who score high in the personality traits of agreeableness (people who are cooperative, trusting of authority, and good-natured) and conscientiousness (people who are ambitious, responsible, and ethical). These people were the least likely to engage in CWBs (unlike those dirty neurotic people), but also the most likely to wait and pull a CWB later on.

So, what’s a company to do? For one thing, companies ought to work to limit stress in their employees lives—and, as we’ve seen in seminal film Office Space, some companies work very hard to keep their employees stressed. When stress in unavoidable, companies should work to reduce it—spread responsibilities, opt for shorter meetings, make sure there’s some cooling off after crunch time. Otherwise, productivity and suffer, and no one will be quite sure why.

Photo courtesy of flickr.

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